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Remembering Terrance Dicks
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I woke up today to the news that Terrance Dicks had passed away. If you're a Doctor Who fan, and of the Classic Who variety, in particular, his will be a name you'll recognize. He was the show's script editor from the tail end of the 1960s into the mid-1970s, there for the transition from Patrick Troughton to Jon Pertwee and even writing Tom Baker's first outing as the Doctor. Beyond TV, he also wrote a large portion of the Target novelizations of Classic Who from the 1970s to the early 1990s, wrote two Doctor Who stage plays which he later adapted for Big Finish, and contributed stories to various Doctor Who book ranges from the Virgin New Adventures to the BBC Eighth Doctor Adventures and the New Series Quick Reads.

He was also known for appearances at conventions, and it was at Chicago TARDIS in 2010 that I had the great pleasure of interviewing him. I think back on that interview I conducted for The Terrible Zodin fanzine and wonder what 20-year-old me playing journalist must have looked like to this man who had written more words than I ever will. Not that he showed any contempt towards me, only asking "Who are you and why are we talking?" when we were taken backstage and left alone in a corner of the green room. From there, we spent 45 minutes together with me asking questions and him answering them, being friendly and kind, clearly in his element. His was the first-ever interview I'd conducted with someone connected to the show, and I could not have asked for a better first outing.

My strongest memories though maybe from when I switched the recorder off and we left the green room. I talked to him about how The Five Doctors, the 20th-anniversary story which he'd written, had helped make me a fan which he seemed pleased to hear. We chatted about the production of Jane Eyre he script-edited and how the production had made the "opposite of the classic mistake in casting" by getting a handsome Timothy Dalton to play Rochester, thus causing the mail coming into the Classic Serial to double overnight! I got to watch him interact with fans and see him wryly observe that he was "very famous over a small area," before getting one of those fans to take a picture of us together. We chatted some more as we took the elevator up, only to discover not only were we on the same floor and the same hallway but just a couple of doors down from one another. Realizing this, he laughed and told me "If you have any more questions, feel free to knock!" Needless to say, I didn't, but I felt flattered he said it at all.

I saw him a couple of more times over the weekend, getting him to sign my DVD copies of Robot and State of Decay alongside a couple of books, all of which sit proudly on shelves to this day. It's the memories that have stayed with me the most, though, and I had always hoped that we might get him to Con Kasterborous one of these years. While sadly not to be, I'm grateful to have met him ever so briefly and to know that his legacy lives on in generations of fans, writers, and readers, all inspired by his work.

Rest in peace, sir, and thank you for all you did.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
"A date which will live in infamy," is how President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the Japanese attack on American military forces at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Nearly thirty years after the attack, 20th Century Fox brought the events surrounding it to the silver screen with the big-budget Tora! Tora! Tora! A film with a large budget and almost as large a cast, though perhaps not as strong as it ought to have been.

In many ways, it's hard not to compare the film with 1962's The Longest Day. After all, both came from the same studio and producer Elmo Williams. Both feature large casts speaking their native languages, multiple directors, epic battle scenes, and attention to historical detail. Both films aimed to bring their chronicles of world-changing battles to the screen in fresh and exciting ways. Whereas The Longest Day succeeded spectacularly with its depiction of D-Day, this film is less successful.

Why? In part due to its attention to detail. As a history buff who has read much about the Second World War and the film's subject matter, it's hard not to admire it in many ways. There's a genuine effort to get things right, to portray people and events as they were and occurred. At times, there's even a sense of seeing history as it unfolded the verisimilitude is that strong. The problem is that all that effort leaves the film feeling oddly dull and detached. The dialogue is, at best, expository and functional and uncompelling at worst. For all the drama that should be there and is intended to be there, it's an oddly lifeless and unemotional piece of work to watch. It's neither rousing nor depressing it just...is, for lack of a better way of putting it. It is a rare example of research getting in the way, of keeping a real-life story from coming alive, rather than the typical case of not letting reality get in the way. Whatever the happy medium between the two is, this film never quite finds it.

That's particularly evident when looking at the performances. The large cast is solid though no one gets anything particular standout to do despite the involvement of character actors like Martin Balsam, Jason Robards, EG Marshall, and Joseph Cotten. The Japanese cast is just as firm as their American counterparts with So Yamamura's Admiral Yamamoto being a particular standout. Unlike with The Longest Day, there's never much for the audience to latch onto in terms of characters due to the material the cast has to work with in terms of being little more than vehicles for exposition.

Thankfully, the film has other things going for it. The film had a big budget for its time, something on display throughout its length. The costumes and sets are first-rate, a solid combination of using both surviving locations and equipment from the era as well as recreations. The film's Oscar-winning visual effects have aged well, something which helps when the film finally reaches the actual attack. Last but not least, what emotion and life the film does have comes in the form of the sparse but powerful music of Jerry Goldsmith who weaves together the influences of both Oriental and Western musical traditions into a striking piece of work. The film is almost a case of being more than the sum of its parts.

More than that, in many ways Tora! Tora! Tora! is the A Night To Remember to Pearl Harbor's Titanic. All are films about historical events, namely the 1912 sinking of the Titanic as well as the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. In the case of the former films, history takes a front seat with filmmakers crafting a roving narrative that showcases it with a large cast. In the latter, a fictional love story takes the center seat with the history serving more as a backdrop (especially in the case of Michael Bay's 2001 film). While Tora! Tora! Tora! may not be as well-made or compelling as A Night To Remember, it remains the cinema's best take on a day on infamy which changed the course of history.

That's even if it happens to be far from a great film.

Frost/Nixon (2008)
Real life has proven time and again to be a fertile ground for the creative. The career of filmmaker Ron Howard is no exception with such films as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind being among the most successful and acclaimed of his career. There's also Frost/Nixon, his 2008 film based on Peter Morgan's successful stage play. While not as financially successful as those earlier works, it is every bit a choice piece of filmmaking.

That it is so is something owed, in large part, to the pedigree of its script. Morgan not only scripted the original stage play but its screen counterpart and it is something that shows. Comparing his original text with the film, it becomes even more clear how faithful of an adaptation Howard gives viewers. The dialogue is all there, expanded upon in places, and the director isn't afraid to "open up the play," that is to broaden it for what the screen is capable of presenting versus the stage. It can sometimes be the kiss of death to do so, but Frost/Nixon stands as an example of how to do it and do it right.

Perhaps that is down to Howard and his production team understanding what the story they're telling is. The director described the film in special features on its home video release as "a thinking person's Rocky," and that is a solid description of it. Frost/Nixon is ultimately a power struggle between its two titular characters, both men down and out in their way and trying to clamber back up their respective ladders. It's interesting that in the "documentary" segments of the film, where the chorus aspects of the original play are utilized and expanded upon, don't feature either of the leads. The film is an intellectual boxing match between those men, the four interview sessions becoming rounds in the sport between them, that final session where Frost can ask questions about Watergate becoming the all-important moment. Along the way, the film raises questions about the intersection of politics, celebrity, media, and our perceptions of reality, something which makes the film perhaps even more relevant a decade after its initial release.

The film has another Howard trademark: the ensemble cast. Leading it in the eponymous roles are the two actors who created the characters on stage: Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost. Nixon has been portrayed on screen many times and in many different ways but Langella's take on the still controversial 37th American President ranks with Anthony Hopkins as among the best screen presentations of him. Langella captures, despite being considerably taller and broader than the real man, the sense of Nixon the introvert. That here is a shy, sweaty, insecure man who has thrust himself into the public eye and is doing so once more because he knows not what else to do with himself. Further, Langella's Nixon is a man who would prefer not to be looking back into his past but who is forced to do so, perhaps subconsciously driving himself to face his demons in front of a massive television audience. It's an immensely watchable, engaging performance and it remains a shame Langella did not win the Oscar for it.

That is not to diminish Michael Sheen in the role of David Frost, the oft-overlooked half of the titular duo. Sheen as Frost is everything that Langella's Nixon is not: handsome, well dressed, a ladies man, and pushing himself into the public eye because it's what he does. Frost is an entertainer whose drug is adulation and ratings with him seeing the Nixon interviews as a chance to try and make it big in America. In doing so, like any gambler, he is putting a lot on the line to the point of risking outright failure. But while he may not have started on this path with the noblest of intentions, Sheen's performance makes it clear that Frost realizes he's placed himself on a mission that he must succeed at and not just for his own sake. Sheen's performance is every bit as gripping as his co-star's and one of the best of his career to date.

Backing the pair is the rest of an ensemble cast assembled by Howard. Keeping up the boxing analogy, they can almost be divided up into teams for the lead characters. On the Frost side, there's Matthew Macfadyen as British producer John Birt in an understated role with Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell as the researchers brought in with Rockwell Jim Reston being almost a voice of conscience for Frost. An extension of Frost's team is Rebecca Hall in the role of Caroline Cushing, the charming British socialite who gets drawn into events and manages to about charm everyone she meets. On the Nixon side, Kevin Bacon plays Nixon's chief of staff Jack Brennan in a part that sees the actor slide into solid character actor territory and the ever dependable Toby Jones as Nixon's agent Swifty Lazar. Add on Howard regulars such as his brother Clint in addition to cameos from Googy Gress, Marc McClure, and Joe Spano and the result is as steadfast a cast as you're likely to get in one of his films. One which brings the events the film depicts to life superbly.

Ably backing both Howard and his cast is his behind the scenes team. The challenges of a film like Frost/Nixon is to recreate the past both faithfully but also in a cinematic fashion. All involved do so nicely with particular attention to detail played to the house used in the actual interview. Elsewhere, production designer Michael Corenblith and costume designer Daniel Orlandi create a vision of the 1970s that is at once believable but also cinematically pleasing to the eye. The latter down in part to the excellent cinematography of Salvatore Totino with an almost fly on the wall approach to much of the proceedings. The sparse but effective score from Hans Zimmer is the icing on the cake, with all of these elements helping bring the film to life beautifully.

The result? Howard's best film since A Beautiful Mind at the start of the decade and one he still has not topped. More that, it stands as a superb example of how to take a successful stage play and bring it to life on film. It also tells a story that remains, perhaps surprisingly given its subject matter is more than four decades in the past, relevant to the here and now. That speaks to the power of both Morgan's script and Howard's skills as a filmmaker.

Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets
For over 130 years, Sherlock Holmes has been one of the most popular characters in the English language. As well as the original stories from his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, others have had a go at writing the famous detective and his companion Doctor John Watson. Further, they've taken them out of their original time and place. Perhaps inspired by the successes of Sherlock and Elementary on television, the 2014 anthology Two Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets see writers moving the duo across time and space. In doing so, they present a glorious celebration of Doyle's creations.

Weirdly, it does so while getting about as far away from the canon as is possible at times. There are stories set in alternative versions of Victorian times, 17th century England, an inter-war traveling carnival, 1970s America, a school in modern day Britain, and into the future. That's to name just a few of the settings to be found among this patchwork of Holmesian yarns from authors both who have written Holmes in his proper timeframe (Guy Adams and James Lovegrove) as well as up and coming authors. It's something that makes it all the better.

Because, if you can put any purist feelings aside (and I sincerely hope you can), you dear reader will find a delightful celebration of Holmes and Watson as well as a number of their famous supporting characters. Or, at the very least, transports their archetypes into those various settings. There are mysteries to be solved involving witchcraft, stolen wax dummies, murders on a college campus, assassinations, ghosts, dystopias, and so much more. There's even an ode to fan fiction, one that tells a neat story while also summing up what makes this volume such an enjoyable read. Even at the most far out, and there's a story here that is in high fantasy for crying out loud, there is something about these characters that make them work no matter the setting.

What's clear at the end of the anthology is that no matter the time or place, their race or gender, Holmes and Watson are always Holmes and Watson. The fourteen stories of this volume are proof if ever it was needed of just why they've endured for so long. Holmes is where the heart is, no matter where in time and space that might be.

The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977)
Four times in American history, assassins have determined the fate of its chief executive. The first was in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated days after the end of the Civil War by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. That Booth was part of a conspiracy, one that evolved from kidnapping to assassination, is beyond doubt. Just who may or may not have been behind him, acting as his puppetmaster as it were, has led to speculation and conspiracy theories. Helping launch modern debates on the topic was Sunn Classic Films' 1977 release The Lincoln Conspiracy and its purported "true" version of events.

Watching it, it's an odd film. As a historical drama, it's not much up to much. For much of its ninety minutes of running time, The Lincoln Conspiracy moves from one scene with strained dialogue and exposition to another. Never once does any of the film's dialogue feel organic, like a conversation that might occur in reality (even by the standards of the time at which the film's events take place). The acting from the film's cast doesn't help either, even with John Anderson once more playing the role of Lincoln.  Also, while a dramatic work, the filmmakers felt a need to employ a narrator quite frequently, breaking one of the cardinal rules of storytelling that it's important to show, not tell. Indeed, that could sum up the film as a whole.

As a production, the film's not much better. In its favor is that it benefits from using surviving Civil War-era locations (including some in Savannah, Georgia judging by the credits) to portray various locations in and around Washington. Beyond the cosmetic, however, it's little more than a competent piece of work. There's an almost 1970s TV movie-of-the-week feel to it from the acting to the direction and cinematography. How much of that is down to a low budget (and the film looks like it had one), it's hard to say. On the other hand, it's clear that the filmmakers didn't have what they needed to bring their theory about Lincoln's death to the screen.

As for the theory it espouses, it's a convoluted one. It involves the historical accepted figures plus not one but THREE separate plots to kidnap Lincoln, with actor and assassin John Wilkes Booth managing to straddle most of them. Indeed, it seems that Booth manages to latch onto one particular plan to carry out the President's murder, leading to a cover-up by others involved in the plot. Things get even murkier when James Williams Boyd, a spy with a striking resemblance to the actor, gets involved. Many of the names involved are familiar ones to those aware of the assassination from Booth and Boyd to Secretary of War Stanton and Lincoln himself. Told well, it could have been intriguing if implausible.

Instead, it's something else entirely. The ultimate problem of the film is that unlike say Oliver Stone's JFK and despite copious amounts of expository dialogue coupled with narration, the film never clearly gets its points across. It's a muddled mixture of revisionist history, conspiracy theories, and clunky dialogue brought to life with cheap production values. And yet, The Lincoln Conspiracy is ground zero for modern conspiracist thinking on America's first Presidential assassination with its theories showcased on Unsolved Mysteries and Brad Meltzer's Decoded among other places.

In the end, the film is a curiosity. Just not a very good one.

Oliver Stone's JFK

Long-time readers of this blog will know of the nearly decade long birthday tradition I have. That every year, on the eighth of November, I review a documentary or docudrama I've recently watched. Well this year, seeing as both I watched it over the weekend with my best friend Emily and it's becomeing relevant again due to the release of various previously classified documents, there was only one thing I could review. Indeed, I'm surprised I somehow hadn't done it before given that it's one of my favorite films of all-time. So here goes...

Few events in American history stand out quite so heavily as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Besides the shocking nature of the event with the American president being gunned down in broad daylight in a major city came the psychic scars caused by unanswered questions due to an alleged assassin gunned down before he could ever be tried and an official investigation that was at best botched and, at worst, a whitewash. Perhaps no single film or work of fiction has done more to raise questions about the event than Oliver Stone's 1991 JFK with its exploration of events through the perspective of Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who brought to trial of the one alleged conspirators.

Stone, along with his co-screenwriter Zachary Sklar, craft a peculiar film around the biggest unsolved mystery in American history. Indeed, JFK as a film owes much both to political thriller films such as Z (which also focuses on the assassination of a government official with multiple versions of the same events seen from the perspective of witnesses brought forth by a determined investigator) and the murder mystery genre. The only difference is that this is a murder with far more scope, far more suspects, and far more consequences than your garden variety murder mystery. It's a tale that takes in a large portion of still recent history and an era in time before distrust in government would reach its zenith (and perhaps has never truly subsided) and when terrible things very likely lurked in the shadows.

Incidentally, anyone convinced that Stone's vision is overly paranoid should seek out the published script book for the film with dozens (if not hundreds) of annotations. The film's vision, while leaning perhaps a bit far in cases, turns out to be far plausible a vision than it's often given credit for. The result is at nightmarish with its implications, so perhaps it's no surprise that the film led to an act of Congress to release more of the classified files related to the assassination which is still being released even as I type these words.

To bring the story to life, Stone assembled a first-rate team both in front of and behind the camera. Borrowing another trope from some of the better-filmed murder mysteries, the film has an all-star cast of actors in roles both big and small. Leading it is Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who becomes both investigator and the audience's guide into the twisty world surrounding the assassination. Costner, though quite different from the real Garrison who was taller and more built, was nevertheless a perfect piece of casting as the intelligent everyman armed with a large amount of dignity and a determination to get to the truth no matter where it leads. Costner's performance plays up all of these elements and even the dark side of Garrison's obsession while also creating someone the audience is willing to follow for the three-plus hours the film runs for.

The rest of the film's cast is equally as strong. The Garrison investigation turns up a number of fascinating characters, any of whom could very well the protagonist of their own film, ranging from Tommy Lee Jones' quietly menace as Clay Shaw, Joe Pesci's eccentric David Ferrie, John Candy as the ever-shifting lawyer Dean Andrews, and Kevin Bacon as Willie O'Keefe (a composite character, one of several the film uses) among many others. There is also Gary Oldman's Lee Harvey Oswald is not only uncanny in his resemblance but a fascinating portrait in its own right, presenting many different versions of one of modern history's most enigmatic figures. The film also has its fair share of strong female performances from Laurie Metcalf as an assistant DA to Sissy Spacek as Garrison's wife torn between supporting her husband and being drawn into the world he's uncovering. That's without mentioning the effective cameo appearances from the likes of Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, and Walter Matthau or the scene-stealing monologue delivered by Donald Sutherland as the mysterious insider known as X. Few films can claim to have perfect casts but, for my money, JFK is one of them.

Those behind the camera are the other half of the equation. Stone's team includes superb costume and set designs from Marlene Stewart and Victor Kempster which gives the film its sense of time and place. Yet as cerebral as the film is, a thinking person's thriller in many ways, it's also an immensely visual work with Stone often relying on the editing of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia as well as the stunning cinematography of Robert Richardson. The three of them together weave in footage both archive and newly shot together into a tapestry that captures the viewer's eye as well as their brain. Underpinning it all is John Williams' score, perhaps one of his most underrated, that plays up not only the sense of unease but also the sense of what was lost all in the space of the film's opening titles and haunting themes elsewhere in the film. It's a remarkable tapestry all around.

Indeed, that is a nice summary of the film as a whole. Stone's JFK is, in essence, a murder mystery. One whose stakes have a firm basis in reality and based on a crime whose particulars are still hotly debated decades after the fact. With his cast and crew, he created a fascinating piece of film-making that crosses genres and time, presenting an incredible and paranoid vision of an earth-shattering event. Except that, if what's in the film is even half true, has deeply disturbing implications. That thought and the fact that the film led to documents being released speaks to the power of film-making and JFK as a film in particular.

Guesting On The Spybrary Spy Podcast Review of ‘Becoming Bond’

The episode of the Spybrary Podcast I recently guested on talking about the Hulu docudrama Becoming Bond is now up on Youtube for those who'd like to give it a listen!

The Fire Next Time (1993)

Miniseries have a tendency to come and go, especially those of yesteryear. Until a friend of mine mentioned this on a Facebook comment a couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of the 1993 CBS miniseries The Fire Next Time let alone seen it. Having been intrigued by its premise and seeing some familiar names in the cast, it seemed worthwhile to seek it out.

The premise of The Fire Next Time is intriguing given that it was first broadcast nearly twenty-five years ago as I write these words. Set in 2017, the series focuses on the Morgan family led by Drew (the ever reliable Craig T. Nelson) and his estranged wife Suzanne (Bonnie Bedelia) living on the Louisiana gulf coast with mother nature going crazy thanks to climate change. As a result, parts of it were to be quite prophetic ranging from a Katrina like hurricane, immigration issues on the Mexican border, wildfires in California, droughts across the country, businessmen profiting off tragedies, and even something similar to proposed carbon taxes. The three hours or so that this runs for include something neat pieces of world building with details being thrown in here and there on the over all world situation and things within the United States.

The production is largely solid as well. Craig T. Nelson is his ever reliable self as the head of the family, perfectly suited to the role as a man fighting to keep his business running and family together in a world going mad. Bonnie Bedelia does well as his wife and the rest of the cast does well with the material they're handed with Richard Farnsworth as Drew's ailing father coming across the best. The supporting cast is large with characters coming and going though there are some standouts including Jurgen Prochnow as Drew's former business partner Larry Richter, Charles Haid as the unscrupulous Uncle Buddy, Sal Lopez as a Mexican migrant, and a young Paul Rudd in a supporting role. The production values are strong all things considered including a version of 2017 that isn't our own but plausible under the circumstances laid out, the occasional nice directorial flourish from Tom McLoughlin and a score from Laurence Rosenthal centered around a memorable theme. All of which helps the miniseries.

Because despite everything in its favor, The Fire Next Time often tends to be more melodramatic than anything else. Despite the prophetic nature of its plot and some nice pieces of world-building, the script from James S. Henerson never quite lives up to its promise. Henerson more often than not gives into cliches to bring the story to life which rather undermines the strong ideas and solid production values. It also doesn't help that the good first half eventually gives way to a wheel-spinning second half that is devoid of drama for the most part. Indeed, if this had been a single ninety minute TV movie based on the first half it would have been considerably better but instead it is a three hour miniseries that is too long for its own good.

What can be said for The Fire Next Time then? It is a surprisingly prophetic miniseries that filled with solid performances and production values but which suffers from a cliched script that never manages to create a gripping drama despite all those things. Perhaps it is a curiosity from a bygone age but as a curiosity it's worth a watch.

Hidden Figures

Real-life events have often proven to be fertile ground for filmmakers. Even when events are apparently well documented, such as NASA and the American space program, they have made for fine pieces of film-making as they can sometimes find the little known stories and illuminate them. Hidden Figures is a prime example of this as it takes viewers back to the early 1960s as America pushed headlong into the Space Race and the role that a group of female African-American mathematicians, effectively tasked as human computers, played in that effort.

In telling this story, the film brings together a strong cast. Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, and Taraji P. Henson play the three leads of the film who find themselves facing different tasks and circumstances as they work at NASA's Langley Research Center. Of the three it is Henson who perhaps gets the largest role of the three as Katherine Johnson, whose work becomes crucial to the success of early Mercury missions. Monáe's performance is solid as well, playing a woman struggling not just with the racial elements of the time but also institutionalized sexism as well. Yet out of the trio the best performance might come from Spencer who is an effective scene stealer throughout and does not surprise me in the least that she has received an Oscar nomination. Together, these three women (both as characters and as actresses) anchor the film solidly.

The supporting cast is solid but nowhere near as strong. Out of them, it is perhaps Kevin Costner as Space Task Group head Al Harrison (a character inspired by the real life Robert Gilruth) who stands out the best as an authoritative but sympathetic boss. Many of the performances though ranging from Jim Parsons' NASA engineer, Kirsten Dunst as the trio's immediate supervisor, Glen Powell as John Glenn , and Mahershala Ali as Jim Johnson all suffer not so much from their actual performances but from often feeling like little more than cardboard cut-outs filling out the film. Which is a shame in a way as some of them feel either superfluous or wasted in their roles with some such as Powell (who is way too young to be playing the forty year old astronaut) perhaps being mis-cast. For what they have to work with though, they do good work.

Outside of its leading trio, the film has other things to recomend it for. The film does an excellent job of taking the viewer back to the early part of the 1960s, a time of both optimism and yet still rooted firmly in the past. This is something the filmmakers work to their advantage with the costumes and sets especially feeling straight out of the period. The film makes strong use of archival footage over CGI effects to bring the actual missions to life though the mixture of the two together is well done so that it takes being familiar with the actual footage to spot the difference. The music score, despite coming from three quite different composers, suits the film well ranging from simple but highly effective orchestral pieces from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch to songs by Pharrell Williams. Combined with the direction of Theodore Melfi, the film becomes a strong mix of elements that take the viewer into the period while also telling an engaging story.

None of which would be possible without the script. Melfi and co-writer Allison Schroeder are to be commended on taking a tale that takes in the early history of NASA, the math of space flight, the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, plus life in the 1960s south to create a script that not only is informative but engaging as well. They do so by injecting a good deal of humor into the film and I have to admit to being surprised by the amount of times I laughed over the course of the two hour running time but also tension. It says something that I heard sharp intakes of breath during the climatic sequence involving Glenn's mission as the film manages to make a tense sequence despite the audience presumably knowing that the astronaut lived into old age before passing away recently.

Yet the script, and the film itself truth be told, does tend to delve into unsubtle melodrama that undermines it at times. There are scenes that, even sitting in the cinema, feel entirely invented such as confrontation involving Katherine Johnson and her white colleagues and a scene that immediately follows it. The film is also guilty of some historical and technical errors as well from a newscaster's line of dialogue about the Mercury capsule “achieving an altitude of 116 miles per hour” to the lack of figures such as NASA rocket engineer Wernher Von Braun or condensing NASA's facilities down to the point that less knowledgeable viewers might think that Mercury mission control was in Virginia (it was really down in Florida). It is something that perhaps undermines the film somewhat though not to a fatal extent.

On the whole though, I can forgive the writers and the film for its occasional lack of subtlety and over-simplifications. Hidden Figures tells a little known story into a highly engaging way thanks to a combination of strong lead characters, first rate production values, and a script that takes what could have been a heady combination of historical events and infusing it with humor and tension. It is a fine example of what a historical drama can do: illuminate the past for a new generation and inspiring them.

Operation Avalanche: Conspiracy Thriller As Documentary
Normally the "we faked the moon landings!" conspiracy theory makes my blood boil. That is even more true when people go out and make 'documentaries' trying to prove it to actually be the case. That said, the idea had produced some good fiction in its time including the 1970s conspiracy thriller classic Capricorn One. Added onto that list as well is this film, a indie made period thriller with a neat twist.

That neat twist is that it looks and feels like a documentary being made in the 1960s. Operation Avalanche which claims to be a documentary following a group of CIA recruited filmmakers led by Matt Johnson (playing a fictional 1960s version of himself) whom, upon discovering NASA is behind schedule, convinces his bosses to let him and his team stage the Apollo 11 moon landing. If nothing else, it is a great way to bring to life an old idea.

In fact, it is the documentary style nature of it that is what make this film. Johnson and many of his lead actors are playing fictional versions of themselves and (as the DVD extras reveal) there was a large amount of improvisation of dialogue going on, something which is evident. Evident not in a bad way but in that it means that there is always the sense that these are people in the heat of the moment. The reactions to things are never over the top but range from the comedic to the panicked, all of which are believable as the events taken on an increasingly darker tone.

Yet the film has more going for it than just a good idea. Despite being indie made, the film features some of the finest period production values for a film set in the 1960s that I can recall seeing in recent memory. There are cars, clothes and yes even sets. It is sets that are among the most impressive elements of the film including the construction of the one that represents the Eagle lunar module on the Sea of Tranquility. As a NASA buff, I was impressed by the level of detail put into the film's NASA focused elements right down to recreating moments from a couple of later Apollo landings. It's impressive to say the least.

The highlight of this film though might be in its cinematography and effects. The film has the look and feel of 16mm 1960s film in its look, containing the right amount of grain and an occasional washed out look to it. The camera-work as well plays well with the found footage format but also manages to avoid much of the shakiness that has become an all too frequent part of the genre. Indeed, it is to the credit of the filmmakers that they find just the right balance to make it believable but also not a frustrating (and for some even nausea inducing experience). The effects meanwhile are subtle and impressive, often finding ways to put the actors into real-life NASA footage including an impressive sequence in Mission Control where the footage works brilliantly with the scene playing out. The most impressive sequence of the entire film might well be the CIA filmmakers visit the set of Kubrick's 2001 in the UK complete with Stanley Kubrick himself. It's something that sets this film apart from both many indie films but conspiracy thrillers as well.

All of which makes Operation Avalanche an impressive piece of work. It's an incredibly well made piece of work combining a period film with a thriller plot told in a documentary style. That also helps make the outrageous premise believable, presenting an (on the surface at least) idea of how it might have happened. If you enjoy conspiracy theories or the found footage genre, this is well worth a watch.

Just remember, it ain't real...