Film: The Wonder of It All (2008) – Lengthy Review

The Wonder of It All, 2008
A review by Kraig McNutt
Publisher, Today in Space History
A shorter review version is here.

All images in this review are copyrighted by J R Productions and used by permission.

The Wonder of It All is a well-done film by Jeffrey Roth (right) Jeffrey Roththat tells the story of most of the Apollo astronaut moonwalkers currently living. Astronauts Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 1), Alan Bean (Apollo 12), Edgar Mitchell (Apollo 14), John Young (Apollo 16), Charlie Duke (Apollo 16), Gene Cernan (Apollo 17), and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17) appear in the film. Noticeably absent, apparently by personal choice, are Apollo moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott. Twelve men have walked on the moon. Seven appear in this film. Moonwalkers Alan Shepard, Pete Conrad, and Jim Irwin have passed on. Shepard and Conrad both receive modest treatment in the film while Irwin is barely mentioned.

This film has a unique place in the panoply of Apollo space history films for its authentic treatment of the moonwalkers as the viewer is treated to 82 minutes of conversation dialogue carried by the moonwalkers in a context and setting that almost makes one feel one is sitting across from the moonwalker in his own office, study or living room. This film should awaken the dormant interest of the casual space viewer and energize the spirit of the serious student.

The film captures the heart and humanity of the spacefaring heroes in a way that honors the men’s accomplishments but reminds us that heroes have feet-of-clay too. As a complement, the Apollo moonwalkers come across more like Forrest Gump than unapproachable celebrities. This film brings the moonwalkers down-to-earth with dignity and respect. We now know these men better than we ever did.

The film is divided nicely into nine segments. For the most part the segments are evenly and appropriately paced, ranging in roughly four to nine minute segments in length with the notable and appropriate exception of segment five – The Moon – which is a bulky 21 minutes and 20 seconds long. It would have been better if segments four (Making History) and seven (Columbus) would have been combined into one because the Columbus segment is near the last third of the film and it seems it fits better in the first third with the Making History theme.

Yuri GagarinThe first few minutes of the film are important as the narrator sets the story of the Apollo programs in its important historical, social and cultural context in 1960s America. Launched in the shadows of the space race inaugurated by Russia’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 and Gagarin’s first flight in 1961 (left), the United States found itself playing second fiddle in the space race to an awkwardly arisen competitor in the Soviet Union. The United States was called to respond to the challenge by then President John F. Kennedy in May 1961 with his famous space speech in which he pledged that the U.S. should place a man on the moon and return him safely home by the end of the decade. Yet in the words of Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan “We did not know tidly-winks about going into space” at the time.

The U.S. might have been behind in the space race in mid 1961 but in just a few short years we’d be blazing a trail for all the world to observe with our space programs by the respective names of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

Apollo 1 fire damageThe 1960s were a tumultuous decade for our country as it seemed like our cultural fabric was unraveling like a cheap sweater. The unrest was fueled by the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Added to that was the conflict we were mired in with Vietnam and the cultural revolution sweeping our great land from the east to the west coast. The Apollo program was just starting to leave the launch pad when a tragic fire on January 27, 1967 snuffed out the lives of astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee. We were less than three years from meeting Kennedy’s somewhat arbitrary deadline and many thought that after the fire-tragedy of Apollo 1 the program itself may never get off the ground. This is why it was all the more amazing that we managed to land a man on the moon on 20 July 1969, a full six months before the deadline.

This film is about the men who carried the hopes and aspirations of millions of Americans in the late 1960s. As the narrator says in the film, “These men turned science-fiction fantasy into reality. . . . spear-heading the greatest adventure in history. They gave us all hope when the heart of our nation was in anguish and turmoil.”

The first main segment is 4 min 20 seconds, called Becoming a Hero. In true Ken Burns fashion the viewer is immediately transformed back to the 1930s and 40s with nostalgic pictures of these men growing up in typical American towns and cities. Most of them came from typical nuclear families, played high school sports, excelled in engineering or the sciences, found their way into the military, became skilled pilots, and then managed to get on the list for potential Apollo astronauts.

Alan BeanBuzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, and Charlie Duke especially help the viewer see that the typical moonwalker did not think of himself as a hero so much as an inquisitive highly skilled test-pilot-turned-explorer, who simply found himself lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. “I just happened to be in the pipeline….” says Alan Bean (left).

It’s not like any of these men set out to become heroes. As a result, it’s this Forest Gump-like quality and luck that endears these men to us so much. It’s almost as if heroism was forced upon them in spite of their desires or wishes perhaps otherwise, especially for Aldrin, whose mother committed suicide about a year before he landed on the moon partially because of her inability to cope with the anticipated attention her son’s lunar heroism would cause the light of celebrity-dom to shine on the Aldrin family.

Buzz Aldrin’s touch with heroism was also as much a part of luck and timing too. He attributes his opportunity to become an astronaut to his pre-NASA background of flying F-86’s in Korea and writing a doctoral thesis on how spacecraft could rendevouz (or dock) in orbit.

Later, in the Fear segment, Charlie Duke muses, “Did we want to be heroes? Did we want to be presented as fearless? Grim-jawed, stealy-eyed? No. I don’t think so.”

One concludes that becoming a hero is not something that is pre-planned or sought after, rather it happens, if it happens at all, when one recognizes an opportunity to deliver a personal level of human excellence in a situation that calls for uncompromising courage and calculated risk.

The second main segment is called Chosen and runs just under four minutes. Whether being chosen for the astronaut club was one of mystery (Duke) or luck (Young), even being chosen to be part of the Apollo program was no guarantee one would even being flying in an Apollo spacecraft.

Alan Bean talks about almost missing the Apollo program completely, having been assigned to Skylab (which he says was an assignment no one wanted). Bean reflected, “Am I gonna pout . . . or do Skylab as good as I could do?” Pete Conrad came over one day and invited Bean to fly with him on Apollo. “I thank Pete all the time with how he wanted to help me become a better human being and astronaut.”

Conrad and Bean
Pete Conrad and Alan Bean

The director – Jeffrey Roth – does a very good job throughout the film interlacing authentic pictures of the astronauts’ family and pre-NASA days, with stills and original NASA film and audio transmissions from various Apollo missions. The accompanying narration, when needed, is well-done and not overused. The original music score is provided ably by Scott Starrett. The music compliments the entire film well and keeps ones mind and attention on the film subjects and the story being told.

The third main segment in the film is simply called Fear. It runs nearly eight minutes. The Apollo astronauts handled fear in a variety of ways. A laughing Aldrin credits being naïve more than anything else with conquering his fear. “No, I don’t think you’d say we were fearless. Maybe I was pretty naïve not to be afraid then . . . not be aware [of the risks] . . . but maybe that was a good thing.”

Edgar Mitchell handled his fear, an emotion, by just shutting it off. “If you’re going to handle your fear you’re going to have to learn to manage it, as a feeling. And so one way to do that is you shut it off. Shut off feelings. “

Arlington Ceremony for Apollo 1 crew members

The subject of fear became much more prescient after the Apollo 1 fire on 27 January 1967, that killed astronauts Grissom, Chaffee and White. The film shows original footage of the funeral ceremony at Arlington (right) in February. Astronaut Gene Cernan speaking of burying a couple fellow astronauts at Arlington starkly revealed that “I wasn’t sure we weren’t burying the Apollo program at that time.”

Standing near the Apollo 17 Command Module in the background Cernan made this provocative statement, “If it weren’t for their sacrifice, and the mistakes made early in the Apollo program to get to the Moon as quickly as we could, we probably would’ve lost someone on the way. Those guys have never received the tribute they deserve.” [Speaking of Grissom, White and Chaffee].

Harrison Schmitt adds his own interesting take on the Apollo 1 disaster, “Anything worth while is going to have risk involved and everybody should realize that.” Continuing, “We had a much stronger program after Apollo 1 than we would’ve had had there been no fire.”

Alluding to Flight Director Gene Kranzs’ famous “Failure is not an option” declarative during the Apollo 13 near-tragic mission, Gene Cernan aptly adds, “Failure may have not been an option . . . but failure sure was a possibility. The greatest tribute to the human endeavor of Apollo was Apollo 13. Even maybe more so than Apollo 11.”

Segment four – Making History – runs about three minutes. Nearly to a man, when asked if they knew they were making history, the typical response was yes, but that was not what was important to us at the time.

One of the more entertaining anecdotes is shared by Mitchell during this exchange about making history. Mitchell was asked by a senior government official, “Do you read history?” Mitchell replied, “Yes, but I’m too busy at the moment making it though.”

John YoungJohn Young (left) took the opportunity to lament that we should have made even bigger and better history by establishing a permanent lunar settlement when we landed in the early 1970s. Young states on film, “I thought we’d go to the Moon, put up a base, and stay there. We should’ve done that. If we had, the world would be infinitely better off than we are today.”

The brief but intriguing segment ends with a comment by Cernan that he’s not even sure that John F. Kennedy really understood the magnitude of his own challenge issued in 1961 for the United States to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the 1960s.

Segment five – the Moon – is the longest of all nine in the film. For the next 21 minutes the film has over 40 individual cuts with brief comments and descriptions by the seven Apollo astronauts presented in the film. Interlaced with their voice-overs are a myriad of superb original Apollo film-footage, radio transmission from Mission Control, and perfectly selected photo stills of the various lunar missions.

Charlie DukeThis segment has several quality vignettes. Charlie Duke (right) talks about the possible wave-off of his Apollo mission just as it approached landing on the moon. The feeling of frustration and potential disappointment due to a late-mission lunar-abort is conveyed perceptively by Duke and comes across powerfully on the film. When Mission Control radioed to the crew that you are go for landing Duke interjects, “Our spirits were lifted by 10,000 percent!”

Aldrin’s description of his initial impulses of stepping on the moon are powerful and engaging. The original Apollo footage is riveting.

A comedic air of relief is provided by the film as we are provided a musical display of original film and audio of Schmitt and Cernan strolling on the moon to the tune of singing “Strolling Through the Park”.

If the film bogs down at all it barely does in this section as we are informed of how routine and pedantic much of the work was for the astronauts while on the surface of the moon. But even this information is important as one comes away realizing that the astronauts were not just tourists taking pictures but were also field scientists and geologists with little if any extra time to even reflect on their once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Gene Cernan’s description though, of the lunar landscape and the rising mountains, is poignantly captured by his question, “How can something so desolate be so magnificent?”

Gneer Cernan

For the few and annoying skeptics who still can’t bring themselves to the reality that we really did walk on the moon, all one has to do is absorb this 20 minutes of the film to witness again the original and authentic impressions of the Apollo astronauts describing what it was like to walk and work on the dusty lunar surface some 245,000 miles from the Blue Planet. If nothing else, Cernan’s simple testimony as he looks into the camera is compelling enough to all but persuade the heartiest of cynics, “I saw it with my own eyes.”

The film begins to drag a little in a four minute expose about collecting moon rocks and geologic investigations until we see some original NASA footage of Charlie Duke and John Young engaging in Moon Olympics, jumping up and down in their space suits on the moon, behind the lunar rover. Because of the conditions of 1/6th gravity on the moon and the awkwardness of the lunar backpack the astronauts were wearing, Duke loses his footing and tumbles backwards out of view of the camera. “Charlie (smirking) fell down a couple of times,” says Young. Duke’s reply is simply, “I was thankful to be alive.”

Astronaut falling downBean laments that perhaps his crew could’ve enjoyed their lunar experience with a bit more levity as well, referring to being in Mission Control watching Alan Shepard’s famous golf shot, by concluding, “We got plenty of good rocks from the Moon; maybe not enough good stories.” One of the better stories is then told by Charlie Duke who took a picture of his family and left it on the moon in a plastic bag. It is still on the surface of the moon today.

This lengthy segment ends with a powerful, heartfelt display by Cernan again as he talks about what it felt like to have to leave the moon’s surface and climb back into the Lunar Module. “When it came time to leave . . . I wanted to stop the clock. I wanted to stop time and savor the moment (like could be done in the simulator).”

Segment six is called Back Home. It runs close to nine minutes. This segment focuses on the return of the astronauts to the good earth. One of the best statements in the film comes from Alan Bean who says that coming home from a successful lunar landing “. . . made me satisfied with my life for the rest of my life.” Only eleven other men can really appreciate what Bean means by this.

Each Apollo moonwalker handled coming home in his own way. For Duke, “It’s all over. Now what are you going to do with the rest of your life?” Mitchell, ever the Stoic, “I was not aware enough of inner feelings.”

Aldrin was struck by how some people back home did not like that we went to the moon and demonstrated in Milwaukee when the Apollo 11 crew arrived to receive an award after returning to earth. Bean, now an artist, reminds us that sadly, some people still do not believe we walked on the moon.

Perhaps even sadder is Duke’s comments about how the early American space program, including Apollo, is hardly even touched on in the public educational system anymore. How will the legacy of these men be honored if we fail to tell the stories to the succeeding generations? And if we don’t tell the stories maybe we could just share the facts? Cernan makes a great point on film that the fact we went to the moon is a great asset in many ways, especially for kids, because having succeeded in walking on the moon in the late 60s and early70s is a reminder to dream big.

Several of the Apollo men then talk about what life has been like since leaving the space program. Bean is now an artist. Young transitioned into the Shuttle program and is now a consultant helping to design the next lunar crew vehicle. Schmitt, who still looks youthful, enjoyed a brief political career and is also consulting for NASA.

But the best part of this section by far is when Buzz Aldrin shares from his painful domestic experiences with powerful emotion. His mother committed suicide about a year before Apollo 11 launched in mid 1969, and the demons of alcoholism plagued the Aldrin family across multiple generations. The pain on his face as he shares from his painful past is endearing and reminds us that heroes have feet of clay too.

Buzz Aldrin

As mentioned earlier, perhaps somewhat out of place is the seventh segment, Columbus. In this five minute segment, the director apparently asked the men if they think of themselves much like Columbus, the American uber-explorer?

Duke’s comments are good, “We have this inquisitive nature that God has given us. We’re never satisfied with the status quo.”

Alan Bean then brings up Neil Armstrong who is often compared to Columbus today. The mention of Armstrong is obligatory at the least but awkward at best at this point of the film. But this is not the director’s fault.

As mentioned previously, knowing that Armstrong could have been part of this film, yet obviously chose not to be, is a vivid reminder to the space history enthusiast today that the oral histories of the Apollo astronauts, as told on film, will always be somewhat incomplete without the participation of Neil Armstrong in modern day films. We’re very fortunate to have Armstrong’s story so well told through the use of the written word in First Man by Hansen.

Aldrin makes one of the more historically insightful observations in the film about one hour into the film. Before WWII the explorers were more individual in their quest (i.e., Lindberg, Wright Brothers, etc). Then, after WWII, exploration required an enormous infrastructure and support from others.

Cernan captures an interesting point when he says that if others look to him (Cernan) as a sort of Columbus is fine but if that is the case, then that puts a tremendous responsibility on his shoulders to take them back to that period to understand it better.

Segment eight – Spirituality – covers roughly eight minutes of film time. The viewer is treated to an introspective look at how each astronaut’s spirituality was impacted by their Apollo experience.

Edgar MitchellMitchell’s (right) takeaway is realizing how much he was not conscious of the spiritual significance of the moment personally, but has managed to find that significance later in life through his research and increased awareness of consciousness and reflection. Aldrin walks us through his thinking on why he took communion personally and yet why Deke Slayton did not encourage it. Cernan, wanting to draw a distinction between man-made religion and authentic spirituality, concludes that science and technology could not explain what he was feeling.

Bean, after coming home, observed that the experience tended to simply reinforce whatever religious or spiritual impulses an astronaut already had. Later Bean points out how many cultures look to the heavens to find God, and only to find that no matter how hard one looks, God is ever-elusive. Duke says he didn’t see then what he sees now. He says that as an astronaut his ‘god’ was his career and now his priorities are balanced.

The final segment is just under nine minutes. It is called Reflections. This part of the film is a cornucopia of reflections from the Apollo astronauts. Young takes the time again to lament that we should have already been back to the moon before now and have an established lunar base. “It is the key to our future.”

Gene CernanDuke, with boyish enthusiasm, recalls how he was there and still remembers most every moment when he was on the lunar surface. But it is Cernan (left) again, who like an evangelist, shares with believable conviction that he still recalls where everything is. He can still see the tracks. While sharing his reflections he almost embarrassingly admits he was just taken back. “It’s almost unreal for me to accept the fact that I’ve done it.” Cernan discloses a personal debt he feels he still owes to the real heroes of his day; his peers who fought in Vietnam while he was part of the astronaut program.

Schmitt, in his professorial manner, reminds us that humans can do anything if they put their minds to it. You can just about do anything with the right motivation to accomplish it.

The film finally winds down as each astronaut responds to the question of how would you like to be remembered? Mitchell sees his legacy as a pioneer, but primarily as a good father and family man. Young, rather surpisingly if albeit unconvincingly states, “I don’t need to be remembered.”

The artist-astronaut, Bean says, “We are charged with making our dreams come true.” Adding, “If you gotta a song in your heart you better sing it.” The spiritually-awakened Duke says his Apollo mission was important but “my service to God through my faith is even greater.” Quoting from Ecclesiastes he says he wants to be remembered as man who walked humbly with his God.

In a quiet and powerful moment captured beautifully on film, Aldrin pauses very reflectively at first. He then says he wants to be remembered as a spaceman, not an aviator. “The space futurist,” he says pensively. “I want to be remembered for at least having taken the risks to look into the future.”

Schmitt commented, “We carried the aspirations and hopes of 450,000 Americans,” referring to the base of workers responsible for the space program in the 60s and 70s. It would not be too inaccurate to say that these astronauts also carried the aspirations and hopes of every American from 1961 through the early seventies.

In the final few seconds we see Duke enthusiastically exclaim, “The emotion was the excitement and the wonder of it all” from which the film takes its name.

Charlie Duke

Cernan closes the film with a Forrest Gump-like description of the experience, “It was like sitting in a rockin chair, on God’s front porch, looking back home . . . it was an overpowering experience.”

As the film comes to a close the music sways to consciousness again and we see these words appear on the screen, “Twelve men walked on the Moon. May we always be inspired by their courage, dedication and pioneering spirit.”

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