Friday, May 27, 2011

The First Auteur, Part Two

Tom Hanks in one of his introductions to
"From the Earth to the Moon"
Before he shepherded the World War II mini-series “Band of Brothers” and “Pacific” for HBO, actor Tom Hanks conceived and executive produced a mini-series of twelve individual films, each with their own style, approach, and perspective, on the entirety of the Apollo Space program, the endeavor that took man to the moon.  The series, titled “From the Earth to the Moon,” premiered on HBO on April 5, 1998.

Produced by Hanks, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the series strove for honesty and accuracy in telling what Hanks has described as “an evolutionary moment in our species.”

The filmmakers faced a challenge similar to that which NASA had faced.  The dramatic climax of the Apollo program occurred when the world watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.  This was Apollo 11; there would be six more trips to the moon before the Apollo program was starved of funding, partially from waning public interest, partially to fund the Vietnam War.  Each of these excursions had their own stories, their own drama, and their own interest.  But NASA was unable to keep the public involved and enthused.  The story of Apollo 11 is told in episode 6 of “From the Earth to the Moon.”  The filmmakers had four more episodes to construct following what might be thought as the story’s climax.  They too needed to find ways, emphases, structures and techniques to keep public interest.

Thus, rather than homogenize the series, each episode has a unique approach and style.  Using a variety of writers and directors, episodes focus on the political atmosphere of the time, on specific technology (the development of the lunar module), on events from the perspective of the media and the astronaut’s wives.

When Apollo 17 launched, it was known that it would be the last of the Apollo missions, and that, perhaps, man would never walk on the moon again.  This final episode of the series would by necessity be melancholy.  In previous episodes we have seen NASA succeed spectacularly and begin to train astronauts in science so that the benefits of the program could evolve.  It would al end with Apollo 17.

Tom Hanks took particular interest in this final tale.   Episode 12, "Le Voyage Dans La Lune," is the only episode in which he acts, and the only episode in which he receives sole writing credit.  And he manages to anchor the story of Apollo 17, and the enthusiasm, joy and sorrow of the astronauts involved, to another story of great discovery, excitement and birth.

And that second story is the tale of Georges Méliès envisioning and creating his cinematic masterpiece, “A Trip to the Moon” in 1902.

"Le Voyage Dans La Lune,"  Episode 12 of "From the Earth to the Moon"  
Thus the story of the ending of the Apollo program is bookended and crosscut with what might be considered the popular origin (or at least “A” popular origin) of man’s greatest voyage.

Hanks takes on the subtle but important role of a fictional assistant, what would eventually be described as an assistant director, to the great Méliès.  It is his character who, as an old man in a faux interview, tells the story.

Here, in two parts, is a condensation of Episode 12 of “From the Earth to the Moon,” focusing on the Méliès’ segments, with additional footage from Méliès’ film included.

Part three of "The First Auteur" to come.

Dan North, in his blog "Spectacular Attractions," has been posting some very thoughtful and insightful work on Méliès.  His post on "From the Earth to the Moon" is here.

You can buy From the Earth to the Moon - The Signature Edition at

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