The Right Stuff

hubble3d

“This is not a documentary,” Alfonso Cuaron said of his new movie Gravity to CollectSpace.com. No kidding. Nobody in a documentary talks the way George Clooney and Sandra Bullock do in this spectacular yet sometimes silly space-set thriller. But I’d love for it to be a gateway to some great documentaries about astronauts and NASA missions and the like, so I’ve compiled a list of favorites that are relevant to the plot. Sure, I could have opened this week’s Movies to Watch list to fiction films, too, but there is less need for me to highlight obvious movies like Apollo 13 and Space Buddies. Also, I’d like to use this opportunity to give a shout out to Dan Schindel’s Doc Option column over at our sister site Nonfics. This week he chose to recommend two true stories for your listening pleasure that relate to Gravity because they involve spacewalks gone wrong. Since he (cleverly) didn’t go with one of the docs I’d have picked, now I get to list them all below.

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Culture Warrior

From the second half of the twentieth century onward, our view of NASA and its associated lore in movies have been inseparable. The astronaut, a uniquely American frontier hero whose myth and iconography made them the cowboy of the second half of the 20th century, has a position in our cultural memory that is inseparable from cinematic imagination. From pre-moon landing science fiction that dreamed of potential encounters with distant worlds through an organized space program (Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey) to reenactments of history celebrating the space program and the individuals involved (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13) to NASA/moon landing documentaries (For All Mankind, In the Shadow of the Moon) to later, more divergent science-fiction films that have emerged since the prominence of NASA has lessened (Armageddon and so on), NASA, space exploration, the moon landing, and its imagined associations have retained a prominent place in cinematic mythmaking prompted by continued fascination with the frontier of space and humanity’s place in it. Hell, we’ve wondered about the moon since the beginning of cinema. That our collective experience of space in both fiction (i.e., narrative cinema) and non-fiction has been via the moving image (i.e., watching the moon landing on TV) is perhaps what most thoroughly cements this porous association between NASA and its cinematic myth.

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Movies We Love

Monkeys? You think a monkey knows he’s sittin’ on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see? Well, I’ll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that’s on TV. Ol’ Gus, he did all right. Ol’ Gus is Gus Grissom, the second US man to be shot into space, though his ride becomes tarnished when he loses his capsule, the hatch blowing before it can be pulled from the water.

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