To infinity and beyond
In the lesser known archives of HBO’s miniseries vault is the 1998 recounting of Neil Armstrong’s first steps in outer space, From the Earth to the Moon. Band of Brothers may get most of the glory, not to say it doesn’t deserve it, but without this twelve episode series it may not have ever been made. Before Tom Hanks teamed up with Spielberg for the World War II epic, he set his sights on something no less grand, seeking to bring the story of NASA’s early years and defining moments to television screens. Now fourteen years old, its reluctance to age is a testament to its seemingly timeless quality.
While by no means a documentary and featuring several fictional characters made strictly for the purpose of the narrative, the boundaries between reality and story are frequently blurred with a great deal of real life footage from the era interspersed throughout. There is certainly a determined eye for detail and while I can’t speak to its actual accuracy, Hanks and his team’s desire to at least make us think that what we’re seeing on screen is how it actually happened is admirable. The series tries to be as far reaching as possible, covering as much of the Apollo program as it can from the creation of the Lunar Excursion Module to the media’s handling of space coverage. The range of viewpoints events are seen from is ambitious and ultimately works because each of these are grounded in well written and acted characters.
The cast is massive and features a lot of faces who would go on to become more well known. Everybody’s favourite meth kingpin Bryan Cranston takes on the role of second on the moon Buzz Aldrin while other TV staples such as Željko Ivanek, Steve Zahn, Stephen Root, Elizabeth Perkins, and many more feature. It’s an extremely well rounded cast that doesn’t stretch itself too far. Truthfully, it could have been much smaller and just as effective since each individual character is so nicely defined but they opted instead for breadth, a decision which thankfully doesn’t have a detrimental effect.
If you noticed a lack of female mentions above that’s because there is somewhat of gender imbalance in From the Earth to the Moon. A balanced cast in terms of male to female ratio is something I think is instrumental in the creation of a truly great piece of storytelling unless the story being told has very specific reasons for not doing so. In this case, valid reasons are present as women astronauts and indeed women working in NASA weren’t really a thing yet. The women here are relegated to tertiary roles such as worried wives or weeping windows which is unfortunate in terms of narrative variety but is true to the period being conveyed, so the show cannot be faulted for it. A late season episode focusing almost entirely on the difficult lives of the women married to the space explorers is hugely appreciated and makes me think that more could have been done in this regard. Given its grand scope though and the relentless pace at which the show moves, to linger on one such element as an exception to the rule is an unreasonable request.
Coming off of watching something like Gravity (which is a very different approach to space film making but still an apt comparison nonetheless) the potential for From the Earth to the Moon to appear as visually outdated and downright mundane is very possible. Thankfully, it holds up very well. Scenes of obvious CGI, like space walks, aren’t distracting in the slightest. And it isn’t just that such moments are of an adequate visual quality, they still look genuinely good.
It’s came as a surprise to me that the central event in the show’s title actually occurs about halfway through the series rather than acting as a finale. It was the right call, since the fallout and following years are just as interesting as the build-up. By around 1972, the American public was beginning to lose interest in the program and Moon exploration in general; the seeming lack of interest in space travel in current times a massive parallel.
It would have been very easy for such a work to fall head first into awful jingoistic, flag waving drivel but the focus, generally speaking, isn’t on the American achievement but rather the human one. Oh certainly old stars and stripes makes many an appearance but never to the point of excess. Early on as the decisive American victory over Russia in the Space Race is presented, it isn’t done so with an air of arrogant victor but rather something more humble and inclusive.
From the Earth to the Moon is more than just a warm up for the excellent wartime tales that would come only a couple of years later; it’s a magnificent piece of work in its own right and powerful commentary on achieving ones dreams in the face of impossible odds. If anything, it’s a sad reminder of how little progress we’ve made in space exploration since then.