Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow (Kennedy, 2018): USA

Viewed by Larry Gleeson as the Centerpiece Film of the 2018 AFI DOCS.

Documentary Filmmaker Rory Kennedy delivers a powerful payload of stunning and breathtaking imagery in her latest film, Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow. Kennedy has made a slew of award-winning and critically acclaimed films including American Hollow (1999), The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) Ethel (2012), and Last Days in Vietnam (2014). In, addition, Kennedy has been nominated for both the Oscar and Primetime Emmy – winning an Emmy with Last Days in Vietnam. Above and Beyond might be the film that puts her over the top when comes to Oscar.

The film opens with an aerial shot of the Challenger Rover landing on the planet of Mars. Non-diagetic music adds to the suspense and the action as archival footage shows the final moments of the landing with a voice over narrator informing the audience that module had entered the atmosphere at 1100 miles and slowed to a final descending speed of one and a half miles an hour. A nice transition is made to a loud, cheering operations room at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory that leads into the title and rolling credits. Various space images set the mood.

Kennedy provides a good portion of the  film’s voice-over narration and reads some poignant words her uncle, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), spoke in the formative years of NASA. President Kennedy believed the Space Program and NASA offered America its greatest opportunities for its best and brightest minds as well as its able and fit bodies and tripled NASA’s budget from 1961 to 1962. Filmmaker Kennedy expertly crafted the words with the images on the screen. Archival footage of the President purveying an early rocket launch site as well as his wise and inspirational speech at Rice University as to why America would go to the moon, “not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…” signifying the advent of the Space Race between the United States and Russia. Kennedy wanted to see space used for knowledge and understanding rather than a place for the deployment of weapons of mass destruction.

Over the course of the next six decades NASA would lead the way in space exploration. There were budgetary setbacks and unfortunate mishaps resulting in deaths. But more importantly, there were massive strides made and Rory Kennedy manages to weave them into the complex history of NASA with some inspirational words of her own at film’s end. Surprisingly, while NASA has been known predominantly for its space exploration it has also engaged itself in the exploration of the earth. And, Kennedy manages to keep pace with this duality through a precise curation of NASA archival clips.

Having been approached by The Discovery Channel about making a documentary on NASA, Kennedy answered the call and incorporated numerous interviews with astronauts and leading NASA officials, coupled with stunning visuals and copious amounts of research materials as she delved into the known and unknown dealing with a simple philosophical premise:

“Human beings, more than any other species, are driven by an insatiable curiosity, a remarkable ability to wonder. It is a need to know that lies deep within our DNA as we seek to answer some of time’s most fundamental questions: Where do we come from? Are we alone? What will become of us?”

And, much like her famous uncle, JFK, Rory Kennedy rallies NASA with its plans for space exploration and throws down the gauntlet with a call to action to moviegoers to safeguard our Planet Earth.

Above and Beyond is an ambitious film containing a wild and dangerous universe – make it yours. A “must-see” and highly recommended.

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