Mercury 13


Even goofing around, these ladies all had the Right Stuff.

(2018) Documentary (Netflix) Wally Funk, Rhea Woltman, Sarah Ratley, Jim Hart, Bob Steadman, Ann Hart, Gene Nora Jessen, Jackie Lovelace Johnson, Eileen Collins, Jerrie Cooper, John Glenn, Jacqueline Cochrane, Gus Grissom, Gordo Cooper, Janey Hart, Bernice Steadman, Valentina Tereshkova, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. Directed by David Sington and Heather Walsh

 

There are some who think it is America’s most shining hour. Certainly in the annals of human achievement the American space program’s race to put a human on the surface of the moon has to rank right up there near the top and yet even that inspiring story had some less proud moments entwined in it.

Did you know that there were women who underwent the same rigorous testing that the male astronauts undertook and in some cases actually outscored the men? If you didn’t then join the club, one in which I’m a fellow member. It’s all true though; 25 female aviators were invited to take the astronaut tests of which 13 were able to pass. They became known as the Mercury 13 in reference to the original Mercury 7 astronauts who included Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Gordo Cooper.

They were invited by Dr. William Randolph Lovelace to take those tests. Lovelace had founded the Lovelace Clinic at the urging of outspoken aviation pioneer Jackie Cochrane who herself was eager to go into space. Lovelace believed that women were just as capable as men to be astronauts and thought that the prevailing attitude that women weren’t mentally or physically strong enough to handle the rigors of space flight was pure hooey.

The testing wasn’t sanctioned by NASA however and when they found out about it the powers-that-be at the space agency blew a figurative gasket. They ordered that the testing be stopped immediately and the women dismissed. The women weren’t about to take this lying down; they took their fight to Congress where they testified – often eloquently – about their right to explore, to do with their lives as they chose. In the end Lyndon Johnson quietly shut their program down without explanation.

The story is enough to hold your interest. Oddly, the filmmakers do some alternate history building by showing footage of the moon landing with a female voice coming from the astronauts, as if Mercury 13 member Janie Cobb had been the first person to set foot on the moon rather than Neil Armstrong; it comes off as a bit self-indulgent. It really doesn’t add anything to the narrative which I thought was better focused on what was rather than what might have been. The aerial sequences early on were well-filmed however.

Although not all of them are still with us, the interviews with the surviving Mercury 13 are a real pleasure. The ladies are still feisty although by now they’re in their 80s. One of their number, Janey Hart, would go on to become one of the co-founders of the National Organization of Women which would go on to lead the fight for women’s rights. As for the space program, it wasn’t until 1985 that Sally Ride would become the first American woman in space (the Russians had sent Valentina Tereshkova into orbit in 1963) and ten years later Eileen Cooper would become the first woman to pilot a space shuttle.

Fittingly, she invited all the surviving Mercury 13 to her launch and the footage of them exulting in the triumph not only of the shuttle but of women’s place in the space program speaks volumes about how necessary this documentary is in the age of #MeToo.

REASONS TO GO: The story is a fascinating one. There’s some nice aerial photography.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s depressing to think that things haven’t changed as much as they should have.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and depictions of sexism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sington and Walsh cut their Space Race teeth by making the acclaimed documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Right Stuff
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Choosing Signs

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John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls


Senator John McCain of Arizona; portrait of a maverick.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) John McCain, Joe Biden, John McCain IV, Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Carol McCain, Hilary Clinton, Grant Woods, David Brooks, Mark Salter, Doug McCain, Frank Gambaa, Joe McCain, Andy McCain, John Fer, Rick Davis, Bill McInturff, Cindy McCain. Directed by George Kunhardt, Peter W. Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt

 

Most people who follow American politics are pretty well familiar with the salient points of Arizona Senator John McCain’s life; the son of a four-star admiral (and also the grandson of one), he became a Navy flyer during the Vietnam War. Captured by the Viet Cong, he was held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years, subjected to repeated torture and abuse. Finally weakened to the point where he could no longer take it, he signed a bogus confession – an act that has regretted ever since – and returned home to take on a political career. Running twice unsuccessfully for the Presidency, he won the Republican nomination in 2008 and unwisely selected then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, an act that changed the political landscape of the United States and not for the better. Last year, he was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer.

It is difficult to review a documentary about a man without reviewing the man himself. Those who read my reviews regularly should be aware that I am a progressive liberal so politically McCain and I disagree about a lot of things. I have never considered him anything less than an honorable man however; famously, he showed up for a vote that kept the Senate from passing  a bill that would have dismantled the Affordable Care Act and put in an absolute abomination of a replacement plan in its place, breaking ranks with his fellow Republicans and earning the wrath of President Trump who clearly dislikes the Arizona senator.

The movie utilizes a lot of archival footage, particularly from McCain’s Vietnam era, and a lot of interviews with political foes, allies, friends and family. Some of McCain’s closest friends come from the other side of the aisle; Joe Biden, for example and Joe Lieberman whom he toyed with asking to be his running mate in ’08 before settling on Palin. The movie also covers one of his more public blunders, his role in the Keating Five scandal which nearly marked the end of his political career. McCain is honest about his involvement and while he was exonerated of any wrongdoing, he admits freely to making an error in judgement which he was censured for.

Clearly the filmmakers admire McCain which I believe most Americans do; even the left respect his service and his willingness to vote his conscience, something few members of either party are willing to do these days. It’s not strictly speaking hagiographic but it is fawning in places and certainly admiring throughout. Then again, it’s hard not to admire a man like John McCain…oh, wait a minute, there I go reviewing the man rather than the movie. It’s a pretty decent documentary. HBO subscribers, particularly those of a political bent, should check it out.

REASONS TO GO: This doesn’t feel like a puff piece at all.
REASONS TO STAY: It seems to be a story that is still being written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers to the book by Ernest Hemingway which is McCain’s favorite.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mitt
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Depths