Sunday, December 25, 2011

Documentary Channel: "Space Tourists"/ "Crisis"

During the month of December, the Documentary Channel is presenting a "Best of" series of some of the most honored documentaries of the past few years. I will be reviewing several of these films during the month.

Space Tourists is a straightforward documentary about the current shape of the Russian space program, focusing on the 2006 flight of Anousheh Ansari, an American businesswoman born in Iran, who flew aboard the International Space Station for eight days. For this privilege, Ansari paid $30 million of her own money to help fund the Russian Soyuz flight that eventually hooked up with the space station.

Interesting stuff, right? Well it's just matter-of-factly presented in this film, as we see the usual shots of Ansari and the other astronauts and cosmonauts living in the gravity-free bounds of space. So we see her hair all stretched out and note how difficult it is to eat and drink on board the ship. There's nothing new here and if it wasn't for a couple of gorgeous NASA images of the earth below, there would be little that's watchable in this section.

I would have preferred knowing more about Ansari - who she is and what really drove her to make this decision. She's quoted as stating that she would have loved to stay longer, but what does that tell us about the individual?

Actually the most interesting scenes in the film are when we see a team of technicians drive through the Russian countryside to retrieve that various stages of the rocket that have fallen to earth. We see at one point how a farmer found some of this metal, kept it and transformed it into a farm implement.

Given that this is the most intriguing part of this film, it's difficult to recommend Space Tourists to anyone except the most passionate follower of the space station.

A far more effective work is Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, an incisive look at the moment in 1963 when two African-American students were going to be the first of their race to attend the University of Alabama. Filmmaker Robert Drew, then a producer for ABC News, had his team of cameramen at the critical centers that mattered during this time, following Governor George Wallace of Alabama along with President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, the nation's attorney general. Wallace had promised to stand in the doorway of the university to block the students' admission, while Robert Kennedy had to initiate commands among his staff as to how to deal with this situation. Would he send the national guard? Would his assistant attorney general be able to maintain dignity and order on that famous day?

Drew does not trick things up or overdramatize here, but instead cuts back and forth among these black-and-white clips, which tell the story brilliantly. We eavesdrop on the primary individuals and get a nice sense of what this encounter will mean for themselves as well as the people of Alabama and the nation. The filming of these clips were for news, thus there is no attempt to make us feel that any one individual is a hero or villain, so the viewer can decide for himself what to think.

This was when news was news and not so much entertainment, as it is today. For that reason, Crisis works beautifully as a vital piece of American history; it is also a very engaging film and is recommended for anyone interested in that era of American history or to see how certain pieces of the executive branch work.

Space Tourists will be shown on Documentary Channel on Sunday, December 25 at 8:00 and 11:00 (EST).
Crisis will be shown on Documentary Channel on Monday, December 26 at 8:00 and 11:00 (EST).

Through January 5, Documentary Channel is asking viewers to vote on their favorite documentaries that will be shown in December. By voting, individuals will also have the chance to win prizes, ranging from t-shirts to camcorders to iPads. For information, go to this page on the Documentary website.

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