From Earth to the Moon
Directed by David Frankel, David Carson, Sally Field, Gary Fleder, Tom Hanks, Frank Marshall, Jonathan Mostow, Jon Turteltaub, Graham Yost, Lili Fini Zanuck
Starring: Tom Hanks, Nick Searcy, Lane Smith, David Andrews, Daniel Hugh Kelly, Stephen Root, David Clyde Carr, Tim Daly, Steve Hofvendahl, Conor O’Farrell, Brett Cullen, Cary Elwes, Ben Marley, Mike Pniewski, Holmes Osborne, Tom Verica, John Posey, Rita Wilson, Mark Rolston, John M. Adrian, Chris Isaak, Tom Amandes, Jo Anderson, Sam Anderson, Robert John Burke, David Clennon, Dan Butler, Keith Flippen, Bryan Cranston, Steve DuMouchel, Ann Cusack, J. Downing, Ted Levine, Dan Lauria, Mark Harmon, Blythe Danner, Kevin Pollack, Jobeth Williams, Alan Ruck, Elizabeth Perkins
From the Earth to the Moon demonstrated that a cable network like HBO could pour tens of millions of dollars into an epic event that was more like a series of theatrical films than a conventional TV show. That might seem ho-hum today, as traditional broadcast TV fractures into many silos, but it was a breakthrough at the time, and now it’s been remastered in high-def for this Blu-ray release. New CGI effects were created for it, which are explained in a new bonus feature that details the effort put into restoring a 20-plus-year-old show that was shot on film.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface before I was born, and I was too young to appreciate the later Apollo missions as they happened. By the time I was old enough to look at the night sky and contemplate what was out there, thanks to directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas firing my imagination, the Apollo program was over.
Space travel during my childhood and teenage years consisted of space shuttle launches (I still remember hearing about the Challenger tragedy) and robots and probes exploring other worlds. My knowledge of Apollo was cursory, but thanks to HBO’s lavish production From the Earth to the Moon, I was able to fully understand that which I had missed.
The 12-part series might seem run-of-the-mill in today’s TV landscape – just another great show to stream – but when it premiered in 1998, it was an event. Unfortunately, it was something else Apollo-related that I missed, due to various reasons, so I jumped at the chance to review this new Blu-ray set. The series, which cost north of $60 million to make back then, has been remastered and features new CGI effects based on models provided by NASA.
Each episode of From the Earth to the Moon was directed by a different person – the big names included Frank Marshall, Jonathan Mostow, Jon Turteltaub, and Sally Field and Tom Hanks, both of whom played onscreen roles too. Every installment also features a different focus and jumps through time as needed to tell the story. The result is a show that feels more like an anthology than an episodic show, which works because this is such a large story that a linear narrative wouldn’t have had a chance to dwell on certain subjects for lengthy periods of time.
For example, episode 11, “The Original Wives Club,” shines a light on the women who raised children, managed households, dealt with intense media scrutiny, and battled some of their own demons for a period of well over a decade. And, sadly, some of them had to deal with the sudden deaths of their spouses. A postscript reveals that nearly all of the ones whose spouses survived ended up divorced.
Another episode, the fifth one, “Spider,” focuses solely on the herculean effort put in by Grunman Engineering as they developed the iconic lunar module. Matt Craven plays Grunman executive Tom Kelly and manages to make a dry technical subject highly entertaining – unfortunately, his voice-over is a bit flat.
I should add here that it’s unfortunate that the people who played important roles in the moon program, such as the African-American women in the film Hidden Figures, didn’t get a turn in the spotlight too. Of course the astronauts get the lion’s share of the attention, as they should, but given the series’ desire to look at lesser-known participants, it would have been nice if they had been given an episode too.
My favorite pair of episodes are the sixth and seventh ones, “Mare Tranquilitatis” and “That’s All There Is,” which provide a fascinating study in contrasts. The former chronicles the lead-up to Apollo 11’s historic moon landing on July 20, 1969, a rare moment that united nearly the entire planet, if even for a few hours. It’s played with proper gravitas, and Tony Goldwyn’s Neil Armstrong and Bryan Cranston’s Buzz Aldrin are workman-like in their approach to the job, although Aldrin’s resentment about not being the first man to step onto the moon provides a tense sub-plot.
“That’s All There Is” focuses on Apollo 12, whose astronauts are portrayed as a trio of goofballs who treat the trip like a college road trip, although they know when to stop and give certain moments the proper respect. Dave Foley’s Al Bean ended up joining the mission because so many of the men ahead of him had died in plane crashes (the astronauts were all pilots who loved to push experimental aircraft to their limits, which resulted in some horrific accidents), and he makes the most of the opportunity. He wouldn’t have flown if he wasn’t qualified, of course, but his “Aw shucks” demeanor helps make viewers feel as if they might be able to be astronauts too.
And while we get plenty of scenes from inside the spacecraft during the series, the scary moments that unfolded during the Apollo 13 mission are chronicled from the point-of-view of the journalists covering the incident in episode eight, “We Interrupt This Program.” Trips to the moon had become old hat by that point, but when it became clear that something catastrophic had happened and the astronauts might be the first ones to perish in space, the eyes of the world once again turned their gaze to Mission Control in Houston.
Jay Mohr brings his unctuous style to the role of Brett Hutchins, who engages in some dirty tricks to get the sensational side of the Apollo 13 story, while Lane Smith plays Emmitt Seaborn, who gets his information from NASA and wants to report the news in a more straightforward way. Both of them are fictional characters created to dramatize the move toward modern “gotcha” journalism. Seaborn appears in several other episodes too.
This Blu-ray set features all 12 episodes on three discs, with a code included for a digital copy. The remastering process required creating a widescreen version of the series, which meant cropping some of the 4:3 image that was originally broadcast on HBO, before nearly all of us migrated to a 16:9 world. The new CGI effects are mostly well-done, although some of them have a plastic-like videogame feel to them.
There are only two bonus features, both on the third disc. Everything else that was on the original DVD release is missing here. I don’t have that set, but I’ve read that none of it was that important, especially since it was created during the standard-def DVD days and likely wouldn’t hold up well on Blu-ray today.
One of the bonus items, Inside the Remastering Process, is a new 11-minute piece that talks about the decision to revisit the series and create a modern presentation. A few HBO executives and various creative folks talk about the process the network used to improve and upgrade the episodes, with plenty of before-and-after comparisons. The soundtrack was improved too, so if you have a current-gen sound system, the show should also sound amazing.
The other extra, the 30-minute Behind the Scenes: Making of From the Earth to the Moon, was ported over from the original release. It has a late 90s/early 2000s EPK (electronic press kit) feel to it, with a voice-over that pours lavish praise on the participants. However, it’s a fun watch, with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews with many of the cast and crew, including Hanks, producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, and others.