Monday, April 23, 2018

Movie Review: Mercury 13

Mercury 13 *** / *****
Directed by: David Sington & Heather Walsh.
Netflix is probably the right venue for a documentary like Mercury 13. This is a fun, informative, breezy doc that runs just under 80 minutes, and tells an interesting and important story that isn’t as widely known as it should be. It’s also a rather lightweight film – it never really takes a deep dive into anything, preferring to stay skimming across the surface on its story. Yes, it works – and it is ultimately a feel-good story. I suspect there is a better, deeper, more complete (perhaps darker) documentary to be made of this material – but Mercury 13 isn’t much interested in telling that story.
The Mercury 13 of the title were 13 female pilots, who were recruited to undergo astronaut testing in the early 1960s in America, to see how they could fare against the men. Of course, they didn’t have quite the same qualifications as the men had to meet – mainly because women weren’t allowed to go the sorts of things that men were at the times, so it was impossible for them to do so. Yet, when given the same tests as the men, they fared well – they excelled at some of the things the men didn’t. Of course, all of this was being done behind NASA’s back, so when they found out about it, there was hell to pay. Why should the American government waste their time and money on sending women to space?
Mercury 13 is a traditional documentary in terms of its style – combining modern interviews with the surviving members of the Mercury 13, or their spouses or children if they weren’t with us any longer, with archival footage and news reports. The level of sexism involved in some of those old clips – even the ones that were supposedly pro-women pilots/astronauts was astounding. The film allows the 13 to tell their own stories – how they fell in love with flying, logged as many hours as they could, and became pilots as good as anyone. No, they didn’t have the jet hours the male astronauts did, but that’s because in the words of one of the 1 they “decided if a woman wanted to fly a jet, they had to be a man”.
The film breezes along for its 80 runtime, basically having the 13 recount their lives before and during their astronaut training, and then going over the Congressional hearings when their funding was pulled, and they were no longer astronauts. It puts some well-known, heroic figures from the past in a different, less flattering light (no one more so than John Glen, which is interesting especially given how he was portrayed in Hidden Figures two years ago). The film then tacks on what is supposed to be a happy ending – recounting the first female pilot who did get to fly the space shuttle (a full 30 years after the Mercury 13) – and that works (although some of the alternate history stuff the film does is a little too heavy handed).
This is an important story – and one that deserves to be told. I wish the documentary itself were a little more complicated and complex – and little less surface level recounting of facts. But it’s effective, and worth your time on Netflix – even if it leaves you wanting more than it delivers.

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