The Space Film Film Festival Part 1: Freedom 7

As a follow-up to this thread I thought I’d do a series of reviews of space docudramas (such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 and documentaries. I’ve titled this thread The Space Film Film Festival Part 1: Freedom 7. If anyone would like to start other threads reviewing space films, please do! It would be nice to keep the title convention. (e.g., ‘The Space Film Film Festival Part 2: The Right Stuff’ or whatever, but obviously I can’t make any rules. Just thought it would be nice to have a series.) For this first thread, I’ve decided to start with a documentary on the first manned Mercury mission.

Freedom 7: America’s First Spaceflight is a DVD produced by Spacecraft Films. The two and a half hour DVD contains four films:
[ul][li]Project Mercury; Freedom 7[/li][li]NASA – Freedom 7[/li][li]NASA – U.S. Astronaut Rides Into Space[/li][li]USIS – Experiment In Space[/ul][/li]It also contains a menu item called The Flight, which has a seven-part documentary on Alan Shepard’s flight, and over 500 un-narrated photographs in six chapters.

Starting from the beginning of the DVD, the first thing that struck me was the quality of the footage. It is outstanding! The colours are vivid and the prints are clean and unscratched. It looks as if it were shot yesterday. I’m used to seeing a lot of grain in documentary footage. Most of the images are so relatively grain-free that I wonder if some of it was shot on 35mm instead of 16mm. The B&W footage is not quite as nice, but still of very high quality. The quality of the Russian footage is more typical of the grainy 16mm we’re so familiar with. The same could be said for some of the Western footage; but overall, rarely have I seen such clean images in a documentary that used nearly half-century old footage. Much of the footage looks almost as if it were shot for a feature film. The angles, the lighting, the ‘sets’ all would not be out of place in a dramatic film.

How many scenes from the Space program are seated firmly in our collective memory? After watching Freedom 7 I think not so many. The DVD contains footage I’d never seen before, and I’m a big fan of the Space Race. I won’t attempt to describe them all as there are so many, but the images are of excellent quality. I will mention this one though: John F. Kennedy presenting Alan Shepard with a medal. I’ve only ever seen it in B&W. Freedom 7 shows the scene in colour. Very nice.

The first segment in the Programs menu lasts about 14:30. It is an overview of the preparations for Project Mercury culminating in the recovery of Freedom 7. It is narrated by participants including audio from press conferences and newly recorded commentary. One little thing bothered me. Alan Shepard says (in press conference audio) ‘All of a sudden during the period of the middle of the weightlessness I realised that somebody was going to ask me that question.’ What was the question? It seems from the rest of his answer that the question was something like ‘What does it feel like to be weightless?’ But it would have been nice to hear the query. Why wasn’t it included? Perhaps they could not get the audio rights from the querent? Obviously the filmmakers could not give us an exhaustive analysis of Project Mercury, or even the first manned flight, in less than 15 minutes. But Project Mercury; Freedom 7 gives us ‘never before seen’ footage and entertaining first-person narration.

The next segment is a half-hour NASA film on Project Mercury, complete with the vintage animation and narration. It’s the type of film Those Of A Certain Age will remember from elementary school when the teacher would haul out the 16mm projector. The narration is serious and strident. ‘You’re confident, but you’re human; and you go over the program just one more time. A feeling of confidence. It began to grow from the day you and your six fellow astronauts were selected from hundreds of volunteers. Confidence in the people of Project Mercury. The spacecraft and the launch vehicle. And confidence in yourself…’ And there’s the staccato music in the background of course. The quality of the footage is not as nice as that in the first segment, but no worse than what we’ve come to expect from watching The History Channel. The footage of the construction of the Mercury Redstone system gives the viewer an idea of just how small it was. The Redstone booster was 1.8m (just under six feet) in diameter. The astronaut sat in the Mercury spacecraft just inches from the heat shield, the instrument panel was two feet in front of him, and the parachute was only a few feet beyond that. As shown in the first documentary, the Mercury capsule with the escape rocket attached was about the same length as the Spirit of St. Louis.

The second NASA film is similar in quality and content to the first one, only it runs about ten minutes and much of the footage is underexposed. Since much of this underexposed footage is the same as was used in the first NASA film, I believe the underexposure occurred in the printing. This film begins with Shepard being taken to the rocket.

The U.S. Information Service film is in B&W and runs about nine minutes. Again, the viewer really gets an idea of how small the Mercury spacecraft was as it shows technicians inside of it during its construction. The film mentions that ‘the spacecraft was named Freedom 7 by the seven astronauts.’ Actually, the name was Shepard’s choice. ‘Freedom’ was patriotic, and it happened to be the seventh Mercury capsule built. But in the patriotic days of the early-1960s the documentary’s version of the naming sounded better.

The Flight starts out with a six-minute segment featuring footage of the preparations of the Mercury Redstone with the audio provided by an interview with Alan Shepard. The next segment’s audio is from a period interview between an Alan Lubin and Alan Shepard and runs about 30 minutes. The third segment has various angles of the launch and the audio is provided by very few radio transmissions, and the sound of the Redstone rocket itself. The fourth segment starts out with an extremely long title card. Not the text; it’s just up there for a while. It features onboard footage of the entire flight, and there is silent except for some R/Ts that start about halfway through. The footage is of Shepard until the retro rockets fire, and then it switches to a static shot of the instrument panel before it returns to Shepard. It would have been nice if the producers had included a mission clock on the footage. Segment five shows Mission Control with audio provided by a period New Horizons (‘A look at new developments in the field of Science and Medicine’) episode. This show also provides the audio for Segment 6 (the recovery and Grand Bahamas Island). The final segment is colour footage of President Kennedy presenting Shepard with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and includes the whole speech and Shepard’s speech. ‘… this decoration, which has gone from the ground up. Here.’

Finally, the photographs. These are presented without commentary. Some of them are interesting, but I played them with the FF2 button. One interesting thing I noticed was that the actress who portrayed the nurse in From The Earth To The Moon in the Apollo flights looked very similar to the actual nurse on Project Mercury. (Very cute, BTW.)

Freedom 7: America’s First Spaceflight presents some exceptional footage that is rarely if ever seen. It provides glimpses into the preparations and training that went into America’s first manned space flight, and features the words of the people who were there. The NASA and USIS documentaries are a little cheesy by today’s standards, but still watchable after four and a half decades. Some of the footage could have used some digital remastering, but much of it was more crisp and colourful than anything else I’ve seen from the period. Freedom 7: America’s First Spaceflight is a ‘must have’ for anyone who is a fan of America’s early space program. I’d rate it a nine out of ten.

Something I forgot to mention: The ‘forgotten footage’ is wonderful to see. However it’s used repeatedly so some of the novelty wears off, especially when the footage is not as ‘clean’ as it is in the first part.