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Savant Review:

NOVA - Faster Than Sound
Image Entertainment
1997 / Color / 1:37 / Dolby Digital Stereo
Starring Chuck Yeager
Narrated by Stacey Keach
Produced and Directed by Tony Stark

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Savant's father, an Air Force flight engineer who was present during many stages of the jet-age experimental tests, loved the book The Right Stuff, but had little use for the movie.  Not only did he have a disliking for most aviation movies (the whole point was usually planes crashing), but he thought Phillip Kaufman's movie treated the Mercury astronauts as clowns and everything else about aeronautics and space as a joke.  Don't even ask what he thought of 1941.  Tom Wolfe's book had made fun of David Lean's 1952 aviation epic The Sound Barrier(aka Breaking the Sound Barrier) for its semi-fantastic approach to the problems encountered by test pilots as they approached that speed where 'the air couldn't get out of the way fast enough.'  Lean's film was science-fiction poetry; air industrialist and visionary Ralph Richardson made Things to Come-like speeches about the manifest destiny of conquering the air.  The men who conquered the sound barrier and space did it for a number of reasons, but poetry wasn't one of them.

After seeing this NOVA episode, it became clear that Kaufman's movie had glossed over a lot of the details of Colonel Yeager's 1947 flight in the Glamorous Glennis X-1.  This 56 minute show neatly and succinctly tells the tale of the race to the sound barrier, right from its inception during WW2.  Because of the focus on military hardware and endless 'personal' testimonies, watching the usual aviation documentaries on cable television can be a trial.  There's ample talk here, but it's from the actual test pilots and engineers, English, German, and American, who actually have prime knowledge of the subject.  Using stock footage, dramatic recreations, and some very nice computer graphics, the problems of airflow and the physical evolution of wing shapes, wing sweeps, and the propulsive jets and rockets became clearer than ever.  For Savant, this was the first time a docu really demonstrated what real forces were acting on the airframes of these planes when they approached the speed of sound.

The NOVA docu is also keen on presenting the political dimension.  The embarassed catch-up game with the Germans played by the Brits and Yanks is shown through footage of a keenly interested Winston Churchill.  The now-underplayed postwar hostility between the U.S. and its allies is demonstrated when the Americans welch on a research exchange, basically telling the English to go away, once they've taken all their original research back to the States. (Yeager even boasts of how the specific 'trick' used to keep his rocket plane under control while crossing the barrier was sneakily kept from our foes and allies alike for five years ... my son commented, "Gee, wonder how many British pilots died testing planes without Yeager's gimmick in those five years.")  But the NOVA show also shows clearly that British plans to breach the barrier were actually scuttled by a bureaucracy that set bold goals, and then cancelled programs just as their engineers were solving the crucial problems.  One experimental English 'bullet' rocket is from 1946 or so, yet had safety designs that seem brilliant, even now.

By sticking to the facts, ma'am, Nova - Faster than Sound earns our respect as a solid docu.  By not getting giddy over the fine details, or trying to hype the danger factor,  1  viewers immune to the flummery that passes for good documentaries on cable tv will find it a fine show.

Image's DVD of Nova - Faster than Sound is the show and nothing but the show, but what do you want, a docu of a docu?  It starts and ends with a faceful of PBS and sponsor logos, and the end even has the original television offer to 'call in to order a VHS of tonight's show!'  There's also a morticed plug for 'next week on Nova,' which makes Savant curious to know whether it was simply the next week's offering back in 1997, or really the next title available in this new DVD series.

The video is fine, limited only by a few funky sources in the stock footage.  The stereo track isn't overwhelming, and the whole experience is pretty much the same as it was on PBS but with a superior picture.  Obviously slanted at the educational market, Nova - Faster than Sound is a good next step when something like The Right Stuff makes you curious about how things really happened.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
NOVA - Faster than Sound rates:
Show: Very Good
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: January 21, 2001


1. A serious space docu a few years back had us laughing with constant repeated dialog, delivered in a NASA twang: "If those vapor valves fail to function with split-second accuracy, that astronaut will burn alive...")  Return

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