REAL TO REEL: True Stories In Science Fiction

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Let's face it: movies would be boring if they had to comply with the laws of real life. I suppose that explains why the science fiction films drawing their inspiration from actual events can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

I had thought to write an article featuring science fiction films that were "based on a true story." But I could only come up with four titles. I even asked some of my uber-geek buddies for suggestions, and they came up with the same four. One guy did think of six other films, but they were all World War Two pictures, and so not exactly what I was looking for. But at least he did contribute one additional film to my list.

The movies are: The Dish, Apollo 13,October Sky, The Right Stuff, and X-15. A sixth film, I Aim At The Stars, could be included, because it's about Werner von Braun, without whom there would not be an American space program.

Perhaps it's a bit of a misnomer to call these films "science fiction," but they're films about space that aren't documentaries. In fact, "The Dish" is so fictionalized as to be a comedy "inspired by true events" rather than a factual retelling of the story of the first moonwalk and the Australian radio telescope that broadcast the ghostly images from Apollo 11 to a breathless world.

It's really a bit of a let-down to find out that the only actual, true event in "The Dish" is that a radio telescope in Parkes, Australia, was involved with broadcasting the first transmissions from the Moon. And even there, there's a bit of fudgery going on, as Honey Suckle Creek Observatory sent out the very first pictures as they came in. Everything else--from the names of the operating team to the computer-wiping power black-out that forms the major plot point in the movie--have been completely invented by the writers.

Well, OK...Parkes *is* in the middle of a sheep pasture. That part's true, too, although the sheep have far less to do with the story than the ads would lead you to believe.

Still, it's not a bad movie, and I suppose if I hadn't just spoiled it for you, you could really enjoy the quirky characters as they try to get along well enough to become part of world history.

In fact, I highly recommend seeing this one, because although the story moves along at a rather sedate pace, the costumes, sets, and landscapes do a terrific job of evoking small-town Australia in 1969...although I think making it look like summertime may have been a bit of a miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers. I don't know, maybe Australian winters aren't as dramatically different as American winters can be, or maybe they're not so bad at Parkes, but about two days after I watched this film, I realized that it exteriors looked more like summertime than wintertime.

There are a lot of characters in this film, some of whom exist simply to provide background color, or to remind us of the turbulent time in which this story unfolded. The Mayor's obnoxiously anti-establishment daughter, and the ramrod-rigid young soldier-next-door who has a crush on her, could have been left out, for instance, and I'm not sure why they gave several other characters a lot of build-up when they had such truly minor roles to play. I guess it comes down to the fact that the core plot point--waiting for the signal from Apollo 11--constituted about seven minutes of script time, so they had to pad the rest of the story out with "local color." I'm probably just being picky. I watched "Titanic" for the boat, after all.

It was interesting to see that the actual radio telescope at Parkes is still in use by NASA, and provided a major set in the film. Apparently when staffers who had been working at the facility in 1969 saw the re-created control room set, they felt as though they'd stepped through a time warp, because it was accurate right down to the ash trays.

There's also quite a bit of gentle humor in "The Dish." As I've said, it's more of a comedy based on a true event. It's a fun picture, and in spite of its flaws, it has the power to draw you into its version of reality and give you a sense of what it was like to be there watching when Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the surface of the Moon.

Meanwhile, the guys who actually went into space became instant world heroes, some of them just because they managed to come back alive.

Jim Lovell's memoir of the ill-fated Apollo 13 Moon mission, "Lost Moon," was turned into a real nail-biter of a film by Ron Howard, who insisted on building every element of his film from scratch, even though NASA offered to let him use some of the authentic locations and components.

Howard's scrupulous attention to detail--even filming the scenes of weightlessness on board the infamous training plane "Vomit Comet"--really paid off, because this film is a visual treat.

The big problem I have is with the depiction of the personalities of the astronauts, especially when Kevin Bacon's character of Jack Swigert is painted as being a bit of a jerk...but then I wasn't there, so who knows, maybe he was.

But all that gets swept aside once the explosion in the liquid oxygen tank occurs, and the race is on to find a way to save the lives of the three crewman with what amounts to a MacGyver fix of the oxygen scrubbers while they use the Lunar lander as a temporary lifeboat. "Failure is not an option" was the mantra as everyone in Mission Control worked to fix the problem and bring the crew safely back to Earth. And in a nice little touch, the captain of the recovery ship USS Iwo Jima, that fished the aptly-named Odyssey out of the sea, was played by--Jim Lovell.

The American space program would never have gotten off the ground without the guidance of Werner von Braun. However, he was not a terribly popular figure in the US, due to his involvement during WW II as the designer of the dreaded V-2 rockets that the Nazis used to bombard London.

Many considered him a war criminal who should have been tried and hanged...of course, when he then designed rockets for the US to use against the Russians in Korea, folks weren't quite so quick to sling labels around.

"I Am At The Stars" is a film produced by Charles Schneer (Ray Harryhausen's frequent collaborator) and is something of an apologia for Dr. von Braun, telling his story from his youthful exploits firing toy rockets from the roof of his parents' mansion, through his days at Peenemunde during the War, and through to the successful launch of a satellite for NASA. The film portrays Von Braun as a somewhat detatched man wholly consumed with a desire to reach space, a desire which permitted him to ignore the human suffering caused by his collaboration with the Nazis--as long as he and his team could keep working on rocket technology, he didn't much seem to care what the rockets were used for. The comment is cynically made by a character who stands in for the American press when he says, of von Braun, "'I aim at the stars...and sometimes I hit London.'"

Von Braun was a controversial figure even to his own countrymen due to his obsession with rockets. His allegiance to the Fatherland--and its Chancellor--were often called into question, and at one point, he was arrested by the SS and threatened with execution. Only his immense worth to the Reich kept him from being shot as a traitor. After this event, von Braun comes under increasing pressure to produce a viable rocket, after almost every prototype Peenemunde launches explodes prematurely.

When it becomes clear to von Braun that the Germans are going to lose the war, he talks his team into surrendering to the Americans, because he feels the Americans will give them a better chance at continuing their research than the Russians will. Years later, he has cause to regret that decision, when Sputnik takes to the skies, while von Braun and the Peenemundians are being kept as virtual prisoners at the White Sands Missile Range facility, and later at Redstone in Alabama, given half-hearted support for their rocket program by the US Government.

That support, of course, changed dramatically once the Space Race with the Russians started heating up the Cold War, and culminated in the launch of the Apollo moon missions.

"I Aim At The Stars" may be somewhat romanticized retelling of von Braun's biography, and it may have glossed over many of his more negative aspects in portraying him as a single-minded visionary, but it does show that "good" and "bad" often tend to be a matter of one's point of view.

One American who did not think that Werner von Braun was a bad guy, was a young boy growing up in the coalfields of West Virgina, Homer Hickam. The film "October Sky" is an adaptation of Hickam's autobiographical work "The Rocket Boys," which describes the efforts of Hickam and three buddies to make model rockets, thus earning themselves the nickname "The Rocket Boys."

Incidentally, "October Sky" not only refers to the night Sputnik first appeared in the heavens, but is also an anagram of "Rocket Boys."

I don't know whether you have to be from West Virginia to fully appreciate this film, but it does a terrific job depicting the way of life in Appalachian coal towns, and what a triumph of determination and hard work it was for the Rocket Boys to escape what seemed like their destiny by winning the National Science Fair with their model rockets.

The expectation is that they will go to work in the Olga Coal Mine, which owns their hometown of Coalwood. The only avenue of escape is to get a football scholarship, but none of Homer's chums can even make the team. At first, they encounter almost no support, except from their idealistic teacher Miss Riley; they're even arrested at one point for suspicion of burning down a forest with one of their rockets, a terrible setback that nearly ends their quest for space before it can really begin. Only by learning the math of telemetry and ballistics can Homer and his team prove that it wasn't their rocket which started the fire--it turned out to be a flare fired by the near-by airport. With exoneration, they get their rocket gear back, and win perhaps some measure of respect from the school principal.

The boys need to learn all sorts of skills to build their rockets, including welding, machining, and chemistry to make the propellants. Homer labors under the additional burden of his father's stern disapproval. Hickam, Sr., a manager at the coal mine, doesn't seem to like his younger son very much, and is continually putting obstacles in Homer's path. But when the elder Hickam is injured in a mine accident, which kills one of Homer's friends, Homer drops out of school and takes a job in the mine so his family won't lose their home.

Even this isn't enough to make his father like him better. Hickam, Sr., isn't a bad man, he's just a hard man with blinders on, just as obsessed--in his way--with running the mine as von Braun was with building rockets.

Homer frequently writes to Dr. von Braun about his own adventures with rocketry, and when at last he wins the science fair, he actually meets von Braun--although, ironically, he doesn't even realize it until afterwards, because he was so lost in the moment of victory.

By the end of the story, the whole town of Coalwood has taken the Rocket Boys as their heroes, turning out to watch the launch of their final rocket before the boys leave for the college scholarships they won. Even Homer's father is there, and perhaps he finally understands his son's obsession, as Homer lets him press the launch button.

(In an aside, Homer Hickam recently paid the tuition to a science camp for a girl who got suspended from school when a science experiment she was trying exploded in class. He said he did it because he had gotten into similar trouble, and was bailed out by a teacher who stood behind him. Sparks gotta stick together.)

Another West Virginian who had an impact on the American space program was Chuck Yeager.

Although denied astronaut status in the Mercury program due to his lack of a college degree, Colonel Yeager showed America what "the Right Stuff" meant by frequently risking his life and limbs to test-fly aircraft and break records, as well as a number of bones.

(I just find it amusing that Ed Harris played John Glenn, Scott Glenn played Alan Sheperd, and Sam Sheperd played Chuck Yeager. But I'm weird like that. Ed Harris also played Flight Director Gene Kranz in "Apollo 13.")

Based on the book about the "Mercury Seven" by author Tom Wolfe, and employing Col. Yeager as a technical consultant, the film portrays the genesis of the American space program. Critically acclaimed, but opening to a lukewarm reception from both the movie-going audience and some of the actual people portrayed in the film (as well as Tom Wolfe himself, who felt the movie changed too much of his book), the film is nevertheless an interesting look back at a point in history where heroes were forged in rocketfire. And their widows were often left to mourn over their lonely desert graves.

The cinematography and special effects are lovely to look at, made even more impressive once you realize that most of the planes are models or mock-ups. You can feel the excitement as Glamorous Glennis, the Bell X-1 named in honor of Yeager's wife, races toward--and through--the sound barrier. This is where "shakey-cam" really works well. Then the first-ever sonic boom, which the onlookers at Edwards believe heralds Yeager's tragic death, shakes the photographs of the deceased test pilots enshrined on the wall of Pancho Barnes' Happy Bottom Riding Club...and Yeager calmly reports that he's "still goin' upstairs like a bat outta hell. I think there's somethin' wrong with this ol' machmeter." "You bust it, we'll fix it," his spotter replies, as the crowd far below reacts with unbridled joy. I still get a lump in my throat to think of what it must've been like, to be the first human ever to fly that fast. Yeager might have been a crazy, cocksure son of a gun, but honestly...that's what it took. That was "The Right Stuff." It may not be "historically accurate," but it sure makes for a fun ride.

You can't get much more "real" than X-15, which extensively uses stock NASA footage of their actual X-15 test flights. This is interesting and sometimes even a bit nerve-wracking.

Unfortunately, the scripted bits revolving around the test pilots and their wives and girlfriends is so strained and boring that you might want to just fast-forward through these segments. And I found myself wondering who sponsored the film--it must have been R.J. Reynolds, because in almost EVERY scene, one or more characters is puffing away on a cigarette. What's scary to consider is that this was not done for some sort of psychological statement on the stress of the X-15 project; it was what people did in the 1960's. You could make a drinking game out of how many times a character lights up a ciggy, only you'd be passed out drunk long before the end of the film...which, come to think of it, might not be such a bad idea.

Unfortunately, this film is highly irregular in quality. Created on a suggestion from the Pentagon, and released at the same time that the real X-15 was setting speed records, the stock footage, as noted, was really interesting, and it's great that NASA and the Air Force contributed to the making of this publicity film. Sadly the aspect ratio of the stock footage and that of the rest of the film differs enough that the NASA footage looks stretched and strange.

The shots of the actors portraying the pilots, sitting nearly motionless in their mock-pits, faces concealed behind oxygen masks, are pretty boring, and I think were done so that actual radio chatter could be dubbed in without worrying about lip-synching. Yes, yes, I'm aware of the fact that pilots wear helmets and masks, but in this film, they might as well have used still images of the pilots.

Which is nearly what they did for the sequence where the X-15 passes into suborbital "black sky." They didn't have any real footage of this, so what they did--stay with me now--it take a cut-out photo of the plane, and pasted it over a background shot of the place where space and sky intersect. To simulate the heating along the edges of the wings and tail fins, they painted the picture with red streaks. I kid you not. For a film featurimg the talents of Jimmy Stewart, Charles Bronson, and Mary Tyler Moore (OK, so the other two weren't so well-known then, but still...), you'd think they could at LEAST have gotten Ray Harryhausen--or even Gerry Anderson--to do the damned effects shots! Hell, I could have done better with my wooden X-15 model and a blanket I've got with a moon and starts pattern on it! If you consider that the promo posters for the movie's initial release proclaimed that it was ACTUALLY FILMED IN SPACE! you'd feel like you had a right to get your ticket money back.

The film isn't sure whether it's supposed to be a documentary or a drama. It starts out with a voice-over of Jimmy Stewart introducing the characters and the basic concept of the film, but then Mary Tyler Moore shows up, driving a convertable, and puffing on one of the ubiquitous cigarettes, and it suddenly makes a hard left into Oprah Winfrey Land. You see, her character, Pamela, who looks way to young for him, had jilted Matt the NASA pilot, but she decided her life was too boring so whe came back to him. He's angry at first, but when he tries to shove her out of his way, they end up tumbled on the sofa. If a film-maker tried to get away with an awkward scene like this today, he'd be rent limb from limb by every women's-interest group in the country. Back in the day, though, this passed for high romance, and Matt and Pamela renew their engagement, much to the delight of Matt's fellow pilots' wives, one of whom we soon discover has had two miscarriages and is in the early days of a third pregnancy. Thanks for sharing.

This gets worse, when the staff psychiatrist tells Pamela that the "reason" why Diane can't maintain her pregnancies is because of her fear for her husband's longevity. "Do you know where babies start?" he asks with arch condescention, then pokes Pamela in the forehead and says, "Right here, In the frontal lobes. Then it moves to the hypothalamus..." Talk about awkward dialog!

Frankly, "The Right Stuff" does a far better job at portraying the sense of what it was like for the wives and families of the test pilots. Maybe this is because it was made in the 1980's, not the 1960's, and attitudes toward women had changed dramatically in the intervening years.

So if you want to hit the fast-forward button whenever the planes aren't on the screen, you have my blessing. When they ARE onscreen, though, it's pretty exciting stuff, especially when things go wrong during the flights, and you realize, with sobered awe, that what you're watching isn't CGI or even model effects, but actual footage of planes blowing up and crashing. Some of the footage came from other programs, such as the sequence involving the crash of the chase plane, but NASA, the USAF, the Pentagon, and North American Aviation all helped out tremendously to make the film as detailed and accurate as possible--and on a very modest budget of only a few hundred thousand dollars.

So, there you have it--the history of the American space program, as seen through the lens of Hollywood.