SXSW Double Feature – Unrest and Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo
Unrest: Directed by Jennifer Brea, Unrest details her struggles with chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis or ME). At the age of 28, while working on her PhD at Harvard, she was struck by a mysterious illness after a experiencing a particularly high fever. Unable to leave her bed for long periods of time, she suffered cognitive impairments, extreme fatigue, sensitivity to light and sound, and intense pain. After her tests came back negative, a neurologist told her that her symptoms were most likely the psychological result of an unremembered trauma. While accepting this diagnosis at first, she and her doctors later came to realize that she in fact suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome – a disease that many think is made up by hysterics and malingerers. Part of the stigma from ME may stem from the fact that it hits mostly women (who are often not taken seriously as patients), and it can be difficult for doctors to diagnose. Brea discovers a world of people on the internet who have had to drop out of their lives because of this disease, and as she fights to overcome the failings of her own body, she also strives to give a voice to those who have slowly faded from public life.
I don’t come to this film without baggage since I have also struggled with a hard to diagnose chronic disease. It took years to figure out what was wrong with me, especially since my tests always came back fine. (In case you’re wondering, I currently have no diagnosis but we treat it like rheumatoid arthritis.) The parts of the film that resonated strongest were the day-to-day facts of living with a disease that has no cure: the constant trying of new, far-out remedies on the barest hope they will somehow help, the obsessive worrying about one’s partner and the fairness of laying this burden on them, and the never ending struggle of living with pain. Unrest flails a bit as a work of art; the pacing is too slow, and the film is fairly bland stylistically, but it succeeds in connecting the viewer to the reality of what it means to have ME. Life is not over for ME patients, but it can feel like it when one is sidelined to the couch or bed for years.
Final Grade: B
Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo: Documentarian David Fairhead’s new film Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, does pretty much what the title indicates. It tells the story of the men in the mission control room during NASA’s Apollo program from 1961 to 1972. Focusing particularly on Flight Director Christopher Craft and his successor Gene Kranz (recognizable by any space history movie nerd as someone likely to be played by Ed Harris with a buzz cut), the film also interviews less famous participants who had important parts to play in sending Americans to the moon. The action starts with the tragic deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee during Apollo 1 testing and ends with the near miraculous recovery of the men involved in the failed Apollo 13 lunar landing. There is a lot of story in between those two events, and if you are interested at all in the history of the U.S. space program, you’ll want to catch this one if you get a chance.
I am generally interested in this subject matter, and while I found the presentation to be somewhat low key, it held my interest even during the “We worked hard and kept improving little by little” sections, but I’m not sure that would hold true for someone who is super excited about the glamour of astronauts and less so in the folks who get them into space. The filmmakers do make it a point to address the all-male atmosphere of the control room during this time and present current female Flight Directors who pay homage to the work ethic and attitudes of their career forefathers. After the disaster of Apollo 1, Kranz gave a speech that would shape the attitudes of those in his Mission Control room those who are doing the job now, “From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough and Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.” This film shows how these men took those words seriously and worked hard to achieve what might have been impossible without their dedication.
This film will also be playing at The Grand Illusion in Seattle April 14 – 20.
Final Grade: B+