Jun 18, 2018

[Movies] Mercury 13 (2018) Review

History is filled with unusual twists and turns. The mix of high points and low points is what makes the human experience so memorable. But it's a bit of a struggle to do the right thing every time and it takes time for people to change no matter how right the cause can be.

Mercury 13 is one of those documentaries that tries to shine a light on one of those less than ideal moments right in the middle of one of humanity's greatest periods for scientific development - the big space race. And the struggle that women astronauts went through before they could take a more active role in exploring the cosmos.

It is disappointing that gender politics remains to be a terribly part of our society that still comes up again and again. And documentaries like this try to do their best to capture those past struggles so that we can learn from them and find a way to do better moving forward.

Synopsis: Mercury 13 is a documentary film directed by David Sington and Heather Walsh created for Netflix. It largely consists of interviews of the surviving women involved in the female astronaut training program.

While the USA and Russie were facing to be the first to innovate their way to the moon, the US criteria for selecting astronauts was from the ranks of military-trained jet test pilots, a group of individuals that was exclusively male. The last time that women had been allowed to fly aircraft was in 1944 when the Women Airforce Service Pilot program was still running. This was well before the popular adoption of jet engine technology for planes and thus women didn't have an opportunity to become jet plane test pilots.

William Lovelace II would later run a privately-funded program to have 25 women undergo the same physical testing that he had subjected the candidates of the Mecury space program to in order to see what the effects would be like. But this testing would not lead anywhere and despite how well the women tested (even versus male candidates), they still never got to space. This documentary tries to dig into these events and explore all the nuances of this particular journey.

What I Liked: The story is quite compelling and a strong reminder of yet another case when women might have been given a chance to participate meaningfully in something great only to have that taken away. You could argue that it's a tale as old as time but it doesn't make any of it righ in the greater scheme of things.

The individual interviews with some of the infamous Mercury 13 as the media would later call them were quite striking. To hear them speak of what it was all like and the many different emotions they went through durings whole experience certainly added a lot of emotional weight to this piece.

What Could Have Been Better: As far as documentaries go, it also feels rather one-sided as we mainly hear from the people who were in the program to one degree or another. We don't get some official statement from NASA or even a reassurance that they were approached for comment and didn't get any feedback. We didn't significant, independent resource speakers to also talk about the program from outside the perspective of the actual test pilots.

And in that regard the movie can feel a little ranty or a little too emotional and not necessarily 100% factual. Efforts to check on the different aspects of the story and have there were parts that they could have been a bit more forward about such as how this was not a NASA training program and thus NASA didn't necessarily shut it down would have helped to better contextualize things.

TL;DR: Mercury 13 is still an interesting piece that certainly informs viewers of how women tested as qualified for the space program but never got a chance to do so. It's a piece that slants in favor of the women but given all that has happened this isn't exactly wrong in itself as their story still deserves to be told. Thus the film gets a decent 3 instances of women being denied their rightful place in history out of a possible 5.


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