Self-described as a "fact-based drama" mixing dramatic recreations with archival footage of the Apollo 11 mission, Moonshot (2009) first aired on The History Channel last July 20th, its climatic scenes of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the lunar surface reportedly timed to match the anniversary to the minute. As part of the onslaught of retrospective documentaries and docudramas to coincide with the anniversary, Moonshot served its function well enough. As stand alone drama and not-quite documentary it's only okay. Filmed on an obviously limited budget, it almost can't help but compare unfavorably to similarly-aimed bigger productions like The Right Stuff (1983), Apollo 13 (1995), and From the Earth to the Moon (1998).
On Blu-ray, Moonshot somewhat unexpectedly suffers in its high-definition presentation; the added clarity of the image only enhances its budgetary limitations, while the archival footage, most apparently drawn from 16mm sources, is generally dupey and grainy, so contrasting the crispy photographed dramatic scenes as to never come together as a whole. Some modest extras are included.
Moonshot tells the story leading up to the launch of Apollo 11 and its successful splashdown eight days later with few surprises. Early scenes focus on the training of astronauts Neil Armstrong (Daniel Lapaine), the Mission Commander; Lunar Module Pilot Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin, Jr. (James Marsters); and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins (Andrew Lincoln), in scenes reminiscent to the training of the Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff. And, as in that seminal film (far superior to the more successful Apollo 13) Moonshot also spends time with their unceasingly patient but nerve-wracked wives. NASA's astronauts are depicted as dedicated, intelligent men, but with oversized egos in many cases and with contrasting personalities. In Moonshot, Aldrin is portrayed as something of a loose cannon, at least in hypersensitive government propaganda/PR terms, while Armstrong is a cooly enigmatic, circumspect character.
For the casual viewer, there's not much in the way fresh drama. The profound scientific and historical significance of their flight comes less out of the show's qualities than in the way it recreations trigger the viewer's memories of being glued to the TV 40 years ago. Surprises are few: I was unaware of the crew's sighting of a U.F.O., a shimmering distant light as their spacecraft approached the moon, while scenes like the astronauts testing their urine collection devices at home are mildly amusing.
Apparently a primarily British production with American financing, Moonshot was filmed in Lithuania, of all places. This would explain why the houses Armstrong and Aldrin live in don't look like anything found in 1960s Houston. The time and place are generally acceptable, however, though the film seems to have been made for less money than, say, the average episode of Mad Men, the result being some of the sets lack detail (such as the capsule interiors).
On the other hand, many of the show's CGI shots are extremely effective, neatly offering the kinds of angles and perspectives impossible in 1969: subjective shots from the astronauts' point-of-view, looking through their helmets at the surface of the moon; the spaceship, seen from a distance, approaching the moon and later in orbit.
Video & Audio
Apparently shot in high-def video, Moonshot is presented here in 1.78:1 full frame 1080p, with possibly some video tweaking to make the new footage resemble film. In any case it looks okay but, as stated above, its clarity only distances it further from the extensive use of archival footage, which was much more seamlessly integrated in shows like The Right Stuff. The archival footage runs the gamut from pretty good (and possibly sourced from 35mm) to terrible. Both PCM 2.0 uncompressed audio and a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround tracks are also included, as well as optional English subtitles. The mixing is modest, much like the show, but reasonably effective.
Supplements include standard-def video "galleries" of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, short biographies of key Apollo personnel, and a "jukebox" featuring five complete tracks from the show's musical score.
During the 1960s, there were almost no theatrical or TV movies attempting to dramatize NASA astronauts and their missions, and even fewer in the decades following Apollo 11. Improved (and less expensive) special effects technologies and other reasons brought about a steady increase of such programs since The Right Stuff, climaxing with the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, but perhaps now it's time to put a moratorium on such programs, at least if they're going to be as routine as Moonshot. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, part of AnimEigo's forthcoming Tora-san DVD boxed set, is available for pre-order, while his latest book, Japanese Cinema, is in bookstores now.