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Moondance

An HBO series recaptures the roller-coaster thrills of the race to the moon -- without glossing over the fatal shortcuts.

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Tom Hanks, who had so much trouble getting back to earth in Apollo 13 (1995), seems to have turned into a moonie anyway, as if the dark side were contagious. Not only is he an executive producer, as well as the affable host, of a lavish twelve-part, $65 million docudrama mini-series on the American space program, From the Earth to the Moon (Sundays, April 5 to May 10; 8 to 10 p.m.; HBO), but he directed the first installment, wrote the last one, co-wrote two others, and stars in a third. If you are wary in advance of what amounts to a very expensive commercial for NASA, you have cause. But your qualms are also likely to be articulated in the series itself, which makes it plain that we committed to liftoff only to beat the Soviets in a my-rocket-is-bigger-than-your-rocket Cold War pissing contest; that the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions were staged-for-TV spectaculars; that the slide-rule wonks rushed a couple of moon shots and shuttle flights for political advantage, with tragic consequences; and that the public lost interest when all we found turned out to be rocks, instead of angels or aliens.

Nevertheless, I’d wanted to go myself, like most American boys who grew up on the sci-fi of Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke; who may have skipped over Teddy White’s reports on China in Collier’s magazine in the early fifties but who devoured every paragraph on wheel-shaped satellites by Willy Ley and Wernher von Braun, as Technicolored by Chesley Bonestell; and who went to movies like Destination Moon (1950) as if to the Web page of our heart’s desire. I will even admit to having been president of the astronomy club at P.S. 69, in Jackson Heights, as well as editor of its Hectographed scholarly journal, The Telescope, which specialized in the catastrophism of Immanuel Velikovsky. And 29 years ago, I got two small children out of bed to watch Armstrong bounce in the lunar dust bowl as if it were a trampoline. Even today, when the boy toy of nerdy choice is a personal computer instead of a booster rocket; when we move clusters of data instead of human beings; when we surf Nets instead of stars, I disdain a weightlessness that’s incorporeal.

To be sure, it’s one thing that 100 million frogs were slaughtered in high-school biology labs between 1958 and 1970 for fear of Sputnik. It’s quite another that Christa McAuliffe was sacrificed, too, in a publicity stunt as shameless as the forthcoming orbital dodder of John Glenn. Nevertheless: little boys, big machines, deep space, true grit, right stuff! If From the Earth to the Moon is merely nostalgic for a passion we can’t muster anymore, evoking less the emotions we no longer feel than the memory of having felt them, it is still a series for every starstruck child who ever walked the Doppler Planck to imagine earthrise and earthset, free fall and space/curve, time warps and light waves, red dwarfs, black holes, Big Bangs, immensity, and silence -- before we grew up to worry instead about Joe McCarthy and Sigmund Freud.

During the first four hours available for preview, it is gorgeous every time it slips the surly bonds of Mission Control. I found my middle-aged self identifying with Lane Smith as Emmett Seaborn, the network “science editor” forever explaining on the small screen what the audience is about to see, or can’t. He is as much a fan as a journalist. Fifteen minutes for Alan Shepard (Ted Levine) in a Mercury! Gus Grissom (Mark Rolston), Ed White (Chris Isaak), and Roger Chaffee (Ben Marley) die during a prelaunch test of Apollo 1, while Betty Grissom (Ruth Reid) smokes and North American Aviation (James Rebhorn) blames NASA for too much oxygen and NASA (Kevin Pollak) blames North American for faulty wiring. While Senator Walter Mondale (John Slattery) and presidential science adviser Jerome Weisner (Al Franken!) have their doubts, James Webb (Dan Lauria) has conniptions. After six unmanned test flights, the crew of Apollo 7 will be dogged by a documentary filmmaker (Peter Horton!), but he succumbs, as well, to fandom. And then the crew of Apollo 8, orbiting the moon and reading on Christmas Eve from the Book of Genesis, is said to have “saved 1968” -- an otherwise lousy year of Tet, antiwar demonstrations, and the murders of Martin and Bobby.

Not even the likes of David Andrews (Frank Borman), Tim Daly (Jim Lovell), Cary Elwes (Michael Collins), Tony Goldwyn (Neil Armstrong), Mark Harmon (Wally Schirra), and Peter Scolari (Pete Conrad) can make the astronauts more interesting than they really were. Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe also tried, in books full of zippy jet-stream technobabble jazz fugues, but the guys were just too super-regular, too standard-issue white-bread, with their corny jokes and test-pilot grins, tanked up on Tang. Nevertheless (again), space is deeper than its tourists. The habitats themselves compel: airlocks, Saturn assemblies, command modules. So do the snippets of historical footage. And we are promised an hour in May devoted to “The Original Wives Club,” directed by and co-starring Sally Field, with Wendy Crewson, Ann Cusack, Kristie Horton, DeLane Matthews, Deirdre O’Connell, Elizabeth Perkins, and JoBeth Williams. If they’re half as persuasive as Rita Wilson playing Susan Borman, we will be wowed. Imagination may have been a handicap for men in their machines, but the wives they left behind would drift in phantom wastes.

Frankly, I’m relieved the mini-series ends with the last Apollo mission, in 1972. That way, we miss the Challenger explosion. It was bitter enough to relive the death by fire of Christa McAuliffe in ABC’s 1990 docudrama, with Karen Allen as the New Hampshire schoolteacher, after which Peggy Noonan wrote a lovely eulogy for the president to lip-synch and everybody talked about O-rings. I remember thinking then that Houston, and Huntsville, and the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, looked like the sacred sites of departed Druids; that the launching pad was Stonehenge; that Lockheed and Rockwell International and Morton Thiokol were pagan blue-faced gods of wind and ice and dread. Maybe I finally grew up when they killed our teacher.

Which left me immune, in 1995, to Apollo 13. The hardware seemed more complicated than the soft people. Oppressive music swelled to fill those empty heads. For a loyal wife like Kathleen Quinlan to complain about the vampire media seemed ludicrous, since so much of the NASA show from the beginning had been staged for those very media. Still, as From the Earth to the Moon so powerfully recalls, however staged the moon shots may have been, at least they were not virtual. Instead of what William Gibson calls the “fluid neon origami trick” and “consensual hallucination” of levitating data, of New Age mutant ninja hackers playing video games in their parents’ basements, there was real meat in these machines. I am grateful to HBO for reminding me that it’s been a while since I longed to float, and many eons since I bounced.

Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach (Wednesdays, April 1, 8, and 15; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) finds the terrific cellist collaborating with choreographers like Mark Morris, filmmakers like Atom Egoyan, Kabuki performers like Tamasaburo Bando, landscape designers like Julie Messervy, ice dancers like Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, and eighteenth-century architects like Giovanni Battista Piranesi to embody for our eyes the music J. S. Bach wrote for our ears in “Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.” Don’t miss “Sarabande” on April 8, where Ma plays with Lori Singer while Egoyan’s camera rolls in an exceedingly enigmatic Canada. I would have thought Bach didn’t need us to look at him, but I would have been wrong. . . . Tempting Fate (Sunday, April 5; 9 to 11 p.m.; ABC) stars the usually forgettable Tate Donovan as an antsy doctor who feels so bad about not having married the girl of his dreams that he ends up, never mind how, in a parallel universe, between the protons and the neutrons, where every choice we made in this world has been decided differently in a ghostly alternative. I started paying attention when this Elsewhere turned into a society where strong emotions of any sort are so feared that those experiencing them must undergo lobotomies; where violent impulses will be channeled into killing games with randomly selected victims; and where even the overweight are deemed antisocial and have to hide out in the Rockies. An absorbing if soft-touch warm-up, in a way, for the forthcoming NBC movie version of Huxley’s Brave New World. . . . The Patron Saint of Liars (Sunday, April 5; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS), adapted by Lynn Roth from an Anne Patchett novel and directed with sumptuous authority by Stephen Gyllenhaal, stars Dana Delany as a guilt-stricken Catholic who leaves one husband (John Putch) in Los Angeles, without telling him she’s pregnant, to raise the child (Nancy Moore Atchison) with another husband (Clancy Brown) in Kentucky, next door to a home for unwed mothers run by the nuns (including Sada Thompson) in whose kitchen Dana works, in the lush vicinity of a wise elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn) whose own life was saved in childhood by the miraculous powers of a spring that’s since dried up. The secrets eventually revealed are not nearly as dark as we’re led to expect, but Delany’s performance is as powerful and complicated as, say, any of Helen Mirren’s.


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