Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Mercury 13' (2018)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Given the massive success of Hidden Figures, I imagine it's only a matter of time before the Netflix original documentary Mercury 13 gets optioned for a major studio feature film. It's another inspirational story of smart women pushing against entrenched prejudices at NASA, in this case a group of 13 female pilots who went through an unofficial astronaut training program in the early 1960s, only to be denied the chance to be considered for actual space flight. There's not quite the same happy ending as in Hidden Figures, though, since none of the women ever ended up going into space (although at least some of them went on to thriving aviation careers). Still, it's hard not to be at least a little moved by the testimonials from these determined women and the injustice they suffered.

As a movie, Mercury 13 isn't all that impressive; directors David Sington and Heather Walsh combine talking-head interviews (with some of the surviving pilots and relatives of those who've passed away) with archival footage to tell the story of 13 female aviators who were recruited by NASA medical specialist Dr. Randy Lovelace to undergo the same battery of physical and mental tests as the famous Mercury Seven male astronauts (famously depicted in The Right Stuff). Lovelace was convinced that not only could women be just as qualified as men to participate in space missions, but also that in some ways they might make for superior candidates. Without NASA authorization, he initiated his own program to test and train women, but he was ultimately shut down when his plan progressed to having the women train on military fighter jets.

A little while later, there was a Congressional hearing about the possibility of having the women officially join the astronaut training program, but that led nowhere, and it wasn't until the 1980s that NASA actually put women on its space missions. Sington and Walsh lay out all this information in a mostly straightforward, pedestrian fashion, and the interview subjects are compelling enough to keep the movie engaging over most of its slim 79-minute running time. But the directors also pad out the film with cheesy re-enactments (including a hokey speculative version of women participating in the first moon landing) and lots of lovely but questionably relevant footage of airplanes in flight. There's also an overbearing score to juice the emotions that are plenty powerful on their own. The result is a movie that succeeds almost in spite of itself, because no amount of lackluster filmmaking could undermine the emotional impact of the story and the inherent charm and grit of the women portrayed.