We have another documentary this week. That’s nice. I like documentaries. The bad part is this isn’t a very good documentary.
Rocket Men (2009) charts the history of the American space program from the days of Alan Shepard and the Mercury Seven astronauts, to the Apollo missions and the horrible accident on Apollo 1 and the great success of Apollo 11, to the shutting down of the Apollo program in the early 1970s, to the Challenger explosion, the launching of the Hubble Space Telescope, and finally the Columbia tragedy in 2003.
That brief description, ladies and gentlemen, is almost the same amount of information you’ll get from the actual documentary. The film is very light on information. It’s done with a narrator only, which isn’t automatically bad. The narrator keeps his words to a minimum and lets the footage do the talking. I like this concept as it’s doing something documentarians like Ken Burns love to do, which is telling the story through first hand accounts as much as possible. In a film like The Civil War (1990), this comes in the form of old letters, photographs, and paintings. Here the story plays out mostly through archived NASA, government, and news footage.
It’s nice seeing the footage, and the music is beautiful and sets the correct mood for a story about adventure and exploration. The reason it doesn’t work is the footage on its own says extremely little. The film is only an hour-and-a-half. You can do a lot in that amount of time, but this movie doesn’t. While it seemed to take its time and let you absorb the new phenomenon being discovered by the pioneering astronauts, it really zips through almost everything. A good example is how Rocket Men completely omits Apollo 13. Seriously, there isn’t one mention of it anywhere.
Why the filmmakers went this direction, I have no idea. Maybe it was because with the Apollo 13 incident being so well-known they felt like they could omit it for time reasons. Maybe with the Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia incidents being talked about as much as they are in the documentary, it was felt the film would be too dark if a fourth disaster was talked about in depth. For whatever reason it was done, I think it was a bad move.
But I think most of this film is a bad move. It tries to go through so much history in such a small time-frame that it failed to get me invested in the ups and downs of NASA, and I left feeling like I had learned little that I didn’t already know. At the beginnings of most documentaries, there’s a quick run through of what the film is going to cover, much like a school research paper. Rocket Men felt like that elongated to a feature run time. If you know nothing about the American space program then this would be an okay introduction. But, really, there are so many better ways to learn about NASA than through this movie.