GOOD NIGHT OPPY (2022, doc)

November 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. “Check out the brain on Brad!” There may or may not have been a ‘Brad’ on the NASA team we follow in Ryan White’s documentary, however Samuel L Jackson’s famous line from PULP FICTION certainly holds true for the rest of the team that helped execute the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. A brief overview outlines the attempts to gain approval, followed by the design and planning and testing to ensure the window for launch was met. See, the launch was scheduled according to a planetary alignment that only occurs every 26 months. A late arrival would have been costly, and possibly ended the program before it really started.

The mission was to send a rover to Mars and have it procure samples from around the red planet in hopes of finding evidence of water, which would likely mean proof of past life. We see some of the design stage as the engineers note the human characteristics, though most movie fans will immediately notice physical similarities to WALL-E. The team created two “twin” robotic rovers named “Spirit” and “Opportunity”. The expectation was that each would have a 90-day lifespan and send scientifically significant data back. The race was on to meet the launch date in 2003, and the two rovers were launched three weeks apart – and to different areas of the planet.

After the 6-and-a-half-month flight time to travel 300 million miles, the two rovers were successfully landed, which only kicked off some of the challenges back on Earth in mission control. It’s here, and with the numerous interviews of team members, that we really get a sense of the emotions running through these folks who had invested so much time and energy into making the mission a reality. Computer engineered reenactments (stunning work from Industrial Light & Magic) help us visualize what happened on Mars, while the archival footage from inside the NASA control room conveys the palpable tension as they helplessly wait for the next signal to arrive.

Although Mr. White’s documentary centers on scientific achievement, much of the focus lands on the human element. We are there to witness first the relief, and then the jubilation as that first signal from Mars is received. Scientists, designers, engineers, and drivers all experience the rollercoaster of emotions driven by the intense camaraderie and teamwork involved. Should you ever doubt whether the smartest people on the planet experience human emotions, you need only look at the faces as daily ‘wake-up songs’ are played, including “Roam” by the B-52s, “SOS” by Abba, “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf. Additionally, after the 90-day window has closed, the annual “cocktail napkin” records each team members prediction about rover survival over the coming year.

Emotions and accomplishments go hand in hand for these NASA types, as do the challenges presented by harsh winters and dust storms that put west Texas to shame. It’s remarkable that Spirit lasted more than 7 years, and Oppy (the “lucky rover”) went for 15, before finally being shut down while Billie Holiday sang “I’ll be Seeing You.” Wisely, director White ends on a high not with the 2020 launch of the new rover, Perseverance. What an inspiring trip this is.

Opens in US theaters on November 4, 2022 and on Prime Video November 23.

WATCH THE TRAILER


ASK DR. RUTH (doc, 2019)

May 30, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Your impression of Dr. Ruth Westheimer might be that of a little old lady who offers up entertaining segments on talk shows, or maybe even more extreme, that of a carnival-type sideshow meant to shock with its taboo topics. Director Ryan White (THE CASE AGAINST 8) profiles the now 90 year old (she turns 91 next week) icon and we are treated to a wonderful story of a fascinating self-made woman.

Karola Ruth Siegel was born in Germany and her parents shipped her to an orphanage in Switzerland at age 10 to protect her from the Nazis and the war. Though her parents did not survive the war, young Karola did and director White allows the adult woman, now known as Ruth Westheimer, to retrace the steps that resulted in her becoming a world renowned sex therapist, speaker, educator and author. Some of the filming takes place inside her Washington Heights, NY apartment … her home for the past 54 years.

Animation is used to fill in the gaps of her childhood, as a narrator reads passages from the young girl’s diary. Her own words connect two worlds – that of a lost child and those of today’s strong woman whose work has impacted so many. Sure, Dr. Ruth has her critics, but she was a solitary voice of help and knowledge at a time “Sexually Speaking” (the name of her first radio show) was still not done in public. This tiny (4’7”) woman with German-accented English spoke directly to her audience (many who chuckled or turned crimson with embarrassment) about matters that were causing much emotional turmoil – matters that were killing relationships. She was truly a life saver for many.

Educated at Columbia and Cornell, Ruth earned her Ph.D. and became a licensed sex therapist. It was her matter-of-fact delivery of facts and insight that made her so popular on radio and TV. Now, in her 90’s, she still teaches two classes, makes appearances as a guest lecturer, writes books (published more than 60), writes a regular newspaper column, and travels the globe entertaining and educating young and old alike. This is a busy, focused woman.

Dr. Ruth was a calm voice in the storm of the initial AIDS/HIV epidemic as she reserved judgment and dispensed facts, while encouraging care and empathy. We learn she has espoused speaking of politics in public and doesn’t much believe in “normal” as a description to be applied to anything. Pierre Lehu, her long-time Director of Communications admits they speak by phone 25-30 times per day. Most people half her age live daily lives much less busy.

Director White opens the film with Dr. Ruth asking Alexa if she’s going to get a boyfriend. Her playful side is still evident, but quickly shifts into all-business mode when required. We hear from her daughter and son, as well as her 3 grandkids. We learn of her 3 husbands, and the situation with each. Did you know she was trained as a sniper in the Jewish Underground Army? Well there’s a segment on that. She was a rare single mother in the U.S. in 1958 and transformed herself into “Grandma Freud”. By the end, we know this spirited woman would have survived and been successful in whatever path she chose. Many are thankful she still walks that path.

watch the trailer: