There are those who maintain that the moon landing never happened. As far as I know, director Richard Linklater isn’t with them, but his new film whimsically presents his own revisionist account of what NASA did in the summer of 1969. Before Neil Armstrong made his giant leap, it appears that a Texas fourth-grader named Stan stepped off the landing module and onto the lunar surface.
Stan’s story is told by his adult self (voiced by Jack Black). It’s not really a complete conspiracy theory, but more of what Tom Sawyer would have called a stretcher — the kind of yarn that could be fun to pretend to believe. The full title of the film, which debuts on Netflix this week, is “Apollo 10½: Memories of a Space Age Childhood,” and Stan’s astronaut fabulations are bright threads in a snug weave of baby boomer nostalgia.
Many children then dreamed of going to the moon. Stan’s imaginary adventures are filtered through animation techniques that are both dreamy and precise, blending seamlessly into his meticulously rendered suburban reality. (The head of animation is Tommy Pallotta, whose previous collaborations with Linklater have included “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly”.) And that’s what the movie is really about: remembering what it was like to be a young American. are in the 60’s. Black’s voice-over has a wry, can you believe it, as if Stan is a father (or at the moment even a grandfather) who treats the youngsters to stories about the past. Or maybe to bore them stiff, if they’ve heard this stuff before.
But let the old man loose a little. “Apollo 10½” may not work with the freshest of material – “The Wonder Years” made wheelies and played kickball on similar generational grass – but it’s a lively and charming walk through memory nonetheless. Perhaps the film’s greatest appeal is for viewers of Stan’s generation, who will likely appreciate its meticulous sense of detail and tolerant, easygoing spirit.
Stan is the youngest of six children, a “Brady Bunch” configuration of three boys and three girls who live with their parents on the outskirts of Houston. Papa works for NASA – in dispatch and reception – and is a slightly moody, slightly eccentric, mostly benevolent patriarch. Mother is rushed, sarcastic and efficient, she runs the household like a thriving small business.
Things were certainly different then. Cigarette smoking was much higher and there was a general disregard for the safety of children, who were piled into the back of pickup trucks, often paddled at school and cycled freely through clouds of DDT without a helmet. There were fights over who controlled the television and hi-fi, and plenty of good things to watch and listen to even without cable or Spotify: “The Beverly Hillbillies” and the Monkees, to name just two.
Of course, there was also the Vietnam War, racial conflict and political assassinations. “Apollo 10½” pays some attention to that, but also notes that, for a 9-year-old boy in the suburbs of Houston, the wider world can seem very far away. Unlike the moon, which was suddenly, miraculously within reach.
Linklater captures the drama and tension surrounding the Apollo 11 mission, as well as the way it fitted into the patterns of everyday life. This isn’t the first time he’s used animation layered over live performances, and this digital rotoscoping technique is especially attuned to nuances of gestures and facial expressions. The way Stan’s father leans forward as he watches the news, the side glances that pass between Stan and his siblings, their mother’s tired stoic demeanor – it’s all beautifully subtle and more cinematic than cartoonish.
And “Apollo 10½” is more of a humble memoir than a space epic. His view of the past is a tense pink, with social and emotional raw edges that have been swept away by the passage of time and the filmmaker’s genius temperament. The moon landing itself is groundbreaking, transformative, and also just something that happened in a boy’s eventful, ordinary life: one small step anyway.
Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood
Rated PG-13. Smoking and other questionable behaviors associated with menstruation. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. In the cinema and on Netflix.