A Good Documentary: Return to Space

I recently watched the movie Return to Space. It’s a documentary about the first commercial mission to launch humans to the International Space Station. That flight was a big deal because it was the first time since the Space Shuttle was retired that we’d launched humans to orbit from American soil.

I started by watching the trailer, and I thought, “This looks pretty good.” So I read more and learned that it was directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Vasarhelyi. This is the same team that made Free Solo, the documentary about Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan. They made another film that I recommend, The Rescue, about the divers who rescued the Thai soccer team that was trapped in an underwater cave. But the first film I saw by Chin was Meru, which was about mountain climbing in the Himalayas.

In fact, Jimmy Chin was one of the climbers in the movie. So he knows climbing and he understands how climbers think. He knows the kinds of questions that are sensible to ask a climber, and the kinds of questions that are stupid to ask a climber. Climbers, like divers and pilots, learn to suppress their emotions, because emotional outbursts can be deadly. Because of this, they can come across as flat or robotic. How on earth do these people manage the incredible stresses on them? Most mainstream portrayals of people in these roles feel a need to make this emotional stress legible to the lay public. Their fictionalizations show pilots monologuing with un-pilot-like drama because otherwise it comes across as unbelievable. But that drama, those emotions, weren’t there in the cockpit. To find the emotion heart of the story, you need to understand where to look. You need the right tools. Chin and Vasarhelyi have those tools. This is what Tom Wolfe did this so well in his book The Right Stuff: getting inside a pilot’s brain. Emotions are displaced in time and space from the dramatic event. Often the crucial decisions are made months or years in advance. The important actions are taken in training sessions. The revealing conversations are made with children and spouses. Chin finds ways to pick apart these complex stories. There’s very little music, none of it bombastic. Properly portrayed, the dramatic events at the center of the film can then speak for themselves.

Apollo astronaut Michael Collins once remarked that, by temperament and by training, astronauts are not emotional. He went on, “I think a future flight should include a poet, a priest and a philosopher… we might get a much better idea of what we saw.” It might be a while before we send a poet into space, but Chin and Vasarhelyi are already coaxing poetry out of those who have been there.

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