The most expensive single project in TV history, at $68 million, this 12-part docudrama blast back to the era of space triumph and moonshots is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking that compellingly captures the passion and vision of exec producer/co-writer/co-director/actor Tom Hanks. It somehow manages to achieve its improbable goal of getting us excited about exploring the heavens again while weaving a definitive tapestry certain to enlighten future generations.
If there was a fear going in, it was that Hanks — admitted space freak that he is — would use his full cooperation from NASA to fashion a rah-rah wet kiss of a miniseries. That he and producers Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Michael Bostick have instead created a complex anthology about the Apollo space program and its legendary players without stooping to patriotic mumbo-jumbo is close to miraculous.
More unlikely still, the ambitious project (rolled out in two-hour installments over six successive Sundays) accomplishes all this through the radically different artistic styles and attitudes of its numerous teams of writers and directors. Each hour plays like a mini-movie, deftly blending vintage news footage with the new. Hands-on Hanks was wise enough to delegate enough freedom for individual creativity to flow forth. It also doesn’t hurt that the acting here is uniformly superb.
Of the first four hours supplied for review by HBO, the first, the Hanks-directed “Can We Do This?,” is the most dramatically linear, condensing years into minutes to explore the space program leading up to Apollo in the wake of President Kennedy’s vow to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
It plays up the beat-the-Russians paranoia and the behind-the-scenes jockeying that colored the Mercury and Gemini missions, with standout performances from David Andrews as astronaut Frank Borman and Ted Levine as Alan Shepard. There’s glorious photography by Gale Tattersall and effects from Ernest Farino and his team.
Second hour, “Apollo 1” (from writer Graham Yost and director David Frankel), dissects the tragedy of the pre-launch fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom (Mark Rolston), Ed White (Chris Isaak) and Roger Chaffee (Ben Marley) during a routine test that nearly derailed the Apollo program before it got off the ground. It digs into the politics, the finger-pointing and the head-scratching investigation, with particularly stellar work from Kevin Pollak as NASA man Joseph Shea, and James Rebhorn, playing rocket exec Harrison Storms.
“We Have Cleared the Tower” is the title of the smartly crafted third hour, a recounting of the crucial launch of Apollo 7 that writer Remi Aubuchon and director Lili Fini Zanuck dramatize through the lens of a mock documentary film crew (headed by Peter Horton). It’s a taut dramatization of the 24 hours leading up to the first manned flight after the Apollo 1 disaster and features Mark Harmon, as astronaut Wally Schirra, giving what may be the strongest performance of his career.
Fourth installment, “1968,” finds writer Al Reinert and director Frankel adroitly juxtaposing the wild societal unrest of that tumultuous year with the comparative social isolation of the space program and the Christmastime launch of Apollo 8.
Subsequent hours look at the lunar module from the prism of Apollo 9, at the Apollo 11 mission and Neil Armstrong’s momentous first steps on the moon, the tensions surrounding Apollo 13 from the vantage point of the covering media, a profile of the Apollo wives and the arcane world of lunar geology.
Based on the first four hours, the spirit and vitality of “From the Earth” (based in part on the Andrew Chaikin book “A Man on the Moon”) make for a true TV event, its cinematic quality matched by the boldness of its belief that people can again be made to care about a quest largely abandoned by mankind a quarter-century ago.
Hanks clearly still believes in the dream, and through this trip back into space he just might inspire others to do a little dreaming too.
Directors of the other episodes include Graham Yost, Frank Marshall, Jon Turteltaub, Gary Fleder, David Carson, Sally Field and Jonathan Mostow. Other writers include Andy Wolk, Paul McCudden, Peter Osterlund & Amy Brooke Baker, Erik Bork, Jeffrey Fiskin and Karen Janszen.