Knowing the ending

I joined many in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this week, attending the only San Diego screening of Apollo 11. Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary was made by recovering and editing many hours of audio and video recorded (usually separately) during the mission. The film was delightful at many points. I had heard the interview on BBC4 of how it had been made, and smiled every time they aligned the audio with the video of the headset chat between mission control and the astronauts. I gleefully recognized the “go – go -go” sequences as tributes to The Thomas Crown Affair, which came out the year before the mission (1968) and popularized split-screen cinematography. I even understood how conspiracy theorists could think the moon was a movie set (a la Capricorn One), because it looked so unreal. But even more impressive was the audience in the movie theatre. The movie-goers responded to the film while it showed, and applauded at the end, and I remember thinking, “this is strange — we all know the ending”.

I had wondered about that going in. How could the film be suspenseful when, unlike some of the other space missions, we know that the astronauts land, walk about on the lunar surface, and return safely? And yet here was an involved audience, and a geeky audience too — who else would spend their Saturday afternoon at the multiplex watching footage of the moon landing? The film was made for this group — there was no narration that wasn’t primary at the time (news commentary, control room conversation), and little explanation about what was happening. Clearly the audience played along as, for example, the line drawing of the ship rotated to latch onto the lunar module. They knew about all this, but laughed at the astronaut’s jokes, hmmm’d contently at Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind”, and held their breath during the re-entry into the atmosphere.

We live in a world now where it’s very difficult not to know the ending, even if you haven’t seen the film or read the book. “Spoiler alerts” are heeded mostly by purists. We see the trailers of the movie, and we know if it’s a comedy or drama. Everything is reviewed, in print and on the web, among friends in Facebook and Instagram. Even if there’s a twist, we know there will be a twist, just maybe not what it is.

It shows the best in human nature that we are willing to pretend, to suspend our knowledge. It’s as if the ending no longer has the responsibility of carrying the meaning of a piece. Instead, the story itself is the meaning, how it is told, or even the fact of it’s being told. It’s the opposite of cynicism, even as we live in a cynical world.

And I can certainly be cynical. I am not happy that the theatre didn’t show the film in their IMAX room (Lion King seemed to be more important), or that the Ruben Fleet Space Theatre IMAX isn’t showing it at all (WTF?), or that no one seemed to take advantage of the fact that the anniversary and Comic-Con were happening simultaneously (where do they think all those sci fi geeks come from?).  We have multiplexes all over the place and very few movies worth seeing — why was it just one showing in one theatre in the county?

I can also be cynical and patriotic at the same time. This was a huge American achievement — why is the BBC doing more coverage than American media? Why can’t we spend more public money on space exploration? I lived through the space shuttle years (I even went to see it land at Edwards Air Force Base). I assumed that the shuttle would always run and just get better and better, not stop. We shouldn’t be leaving space to Elon Musk and private money. In 1968 we funded the space program and the Great Society at the same time, so don’t tell me there’s no money. And if everyone wants to make us great again, what better than the space program to do that?

But even my discontent was overcome by the actual history, and an excellent film about the main events. Since 1969, people who remember the moon landings look at the moon differently. There were young people at the film who now look at the moon differently too. We went there, they think, for real. Not on a video game, not CGI, but for real. I don’t know the ending, but I have hope about what they’ll do with that feeling.