On my drive to work today, the morning-show hosts exclaimed about being allowed to stay up late to watch the moon landing fifty years ago: “People didn’t believe it was real! It seemed impossible—that they went there and we could see it!” A colleague reminisced that she’ll always remember being invited to a swank, Georgetown party to watch the landing that night. Ninety-six percent of all TVs turned on at the time were tuned to the landing. My mother, who was six at the time, recalls thinking that the astronauts must have special powers. It was a historical moment that millions actively participated in, shaping how the nation connected and television’s role in that unity.
Unity is something I don’t hear associated with television much anymore. A new MIT-Harvard-Boston University paper this week, titled “Persuading the Enemy” makes note of how television news drives social and political polarization. On Wednesday night, much airtime was given over to nationalistic and xenophobic chanting at a Trump rally that horrified commentators. The fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing is laden with a specific, soured nostalgia. A real sense of look how far we haven’t come.
HBO’s wide-spanning miniseries From Earth to the Moon (1998), with producer and host Tom Hanks, speaks to the grandiosity of that moment. The series was re-released with fanfare on HBO’s streaming service ahead of today’s anniversary, with a remastered DVD edition. It is, of course, celebratory. It’s a digital monument to an accomplishment that defined an era of scientific discovery and adventure. It’s an American-branded re-imagining of a familiar mythology.
Maybe that’s why it’s boring. It’s an optimistic series that feels incredibly sincere with all the usual hallmarks of token cynicism (How many taxpayer dollars?! A red moon hanging over our heads?!). A mix of highly funded reenactments and historical recordings create a linear, educationally-laden story that will probably see/already has seen a lot of use—at least in parts—in AP US History classes as teachers scramble to fill time at the end of the year.
Optimism is the Achilles heel of this story’s re-release. Being excited for what happens next—it’s a foreign idea when yesterday’s news is Jewish activists arrested protesting ICE, today’s is nuns and monks in handcuffs being led away from their protest, and tomorrow’s is frail Hawaiian elders arrested en masse as they defend land from desecration. Maybe ten years ago, when HOPE was emblazoned on red, white, and blue campaign posters, From Earth to the Moon would have been a comfortable watch. Not so today.
It makes sense why the monumental series was re-released. It’s getting its views and its acclaim all over again (on its original release, it won a Golden Globe and picked up roughly fifty other award nominations). It’s good business. But sitting down to watch it now feels like a rebuke. Its sincere opening, as a young Hank strides toward the camera expounding on the divine nature of flight and the outside limits of human imagination, seems to demand an antiquated kind of dignity to its American mythos. And this is from 1998.
I’d say sit down and watch this series, or at least the first episode. Open up this high-caliber time capsule and peer into the imaginative lens, both of the landing itself and of how it was conceptualized and narrativized twenty years ago. The series is a monumental creative endeavor, marking a milestone in human history. It’s exceptionally good, in all technical aspects. But it doesn’t feel celebratory to me, the viewer. It makes me squirm, living through a moment already being cast as monumental in our nation’s history. As Adam Serwer writes in The Atlantic, what American do now will define us forever. But in thirty or fifty years, the miniseries won’t be about planting Old Glory on the moon and saluting. It will be about the survivors of the border camps and the scars that we don’t know how to heal.