Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (2017)

There have been a plethora of documentaries on the subject of the Apollo Space Program made in the last 20 years and the majority of them have focused on the experiences of the astronauts or on the socio-political context of the missions. Hidden Figures was a breath of fresh air as it unveiled and dramatised the work of those women behind the scenes who at the time were not given recognition. With Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo David Fairhead has broken the mould again by putting the audience right inside mission control, a place that the audience has previously only seen from the outside, always separated by the computer monitors which pour vast quantities of unintelligible data into the brains of their users. Everyone has seen the images of men in suits jabbering into microphones or smoking celebratory cigars, but mission control has always been an alien world, steeped in mystery, to even the most experienced documentary watcher.

Here, the terminology is explained, the acronyms deciphered and the challenges laid out plain as day. Before the film gets into the details of any of the flights, archive news footage gives a brief floor plan of where each particular individual’s desk and monitor is before the various engineers –  EECOM (Power and Life Support), INCO (Instrumentation & Communications Officer), CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator) are just a few – explain personal roles and responsibilities, both generally and in relation to the various Apollo missions. This is an editorial decision from David Fairhead, who also directs the film, that allows the audience to understand the stress and pressure that these people endure and therefore empathise with them during the most testing moments of the missions. The film is Fairhead’s directorial debut but as an editor, mostly on documentaries, for more than 20 years he has a great deal of experience taking real stories and real people and making them both visually and emotionally arresting. Through the blending of archive footage and interviews with those who worked in mission control Fairhead gives a unique insight into the inner workings of one of the most audacious and dangerous endeavours in human history.

The only real issue is that while Fairhead’s directing and editing is enough to make the documentary cinematic, a number of unnecessary additions have been made which are intended to add to the gravitas and drama of the story but instead detract from an otherwise brilliantly sculpted work. For instance, interspersed VFX clips of Apollo 11 flying around the moon or Apollo 13 venting oxygen looked cheap and fake, perhaps because the film has a budget incomparable with most modern day visual effects driven movies. Given the amount of available footage from the missions, much of it used in Mission Control to great effect, the use of computer generated images to depict the events as they unfolded seemed somewhat out of place. In the same vein, Chris Roe’s overblown score would be more at home in a mid range Hollywood drama than it is in this grounded and subtly crafted documentary.

Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo is one of the most cinematic documentaries of the past few years and this is the case not because of any visual trickery, but because of the depth of Fairhead’s storytelling. Most people will have watched half a dozen films documenting human exploration of space, but here is a film which tells a story otherwise untold and shines a light on the unsung work of people who’s pivotal role in the development of space flight has long been impenetrable to those on the outside.

★★★★

Tim Abrams