You’d be hard-pressed to find a fictional representation of long-haul space travel that didn’t focus on the psychic weight of isolation and claustrophobia. It’s the seed of everything from Elton John’s “Rocketman” and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” to movies like Moon and Alien to multiple episodes of The Twilight Zone and much of For All Mankind.
Maybe in the deepest reaches of the galaxy we’ll encounter instrument-damaging solar flares, colonizing aliens or whatever was happening in that movie with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, but a more tangible threat may simply be loneliness.
The Longest Goodbye
The Bottom Line
Rushed, but mostly effective.
Take Ido Mizrahy’s Sundance-premiering documentary The Longest Goodbye as a prequel, then, to every science fiction story ever told. An exploration of NASA’s real-life attempts to grapple with what was previously the terrain of whimsical fabulists, The Longest Goodbye suffers occasionally from access issues and insufficient time to expand on its most potent themes. But the questions the documentary and its subjects are asking are compelling, emotionally considered and, with some reaching, universal.
Mizrahy’s investigation begins with NASA on the brink of the next evolution in space flight. Somewhat stagnated for decades, our concentration has been on populating the International Space Station, but multiple presidents have promised a return to the moon, followed soon after by the first staffed mission to Mars.
It’s a process that has prompted a reexamination of the way we populate the astronaut side of the program. Anyone who has read or seen The Right Stuff knows that the first astronauts were test pilots, daring adrenaline junkies who blanched at psychological testing and were selected for their ability to make split-second decisions on missions that sometimes only lasted hours. Today’s astronauts are expected to work towards a possible three-year journey to Mars and back again.
“It is an engineering culture,” Dr. Jack Stuster, a so-called “human factors specialist,” says. “The soft, squishy humans are completely unfathomable to engineers.”
That’s where Dr. Al Holland, the documentary’s real hero, comes in. Holland was a Houston-area psychologist whom NASA brought in to oversee a nascent psychological readiness team, studying the factors that could lead to mission-jeopardizing problems; figuring out criteria upon which to select the astronauts who will be facing those problems; and looking for solutions to protect missions that can’t be scrapped or curtailed based on individual mental breakdowns or interpersonal conflicts.
Mizrahy and writer-producer Nir Sa’ar take us from the recent past to the present and into the future to underline which contingencies we’re practically prepared for and which solutions remain the stuff of speculative fiction.
The documentary is on sturdiest ground in the first two timeframes. On the recent past side, we have Cady Coleman, who spent six months on the ISS in 2007, when her son Jamey was in the fourth grade. Along with extensive recordings of their webcammed interactions from that time, Cody and Jamey offer their different perspectives on what it was like to try to maintain family ties through a long absence defined by technological lags and normal irritations and insecurities.
In the present, we meet new astronaut Kayla and her husband, Tom. A former submarine officer, Kayla is a prototype for the sort of astronaut Holland is looking to recruit — she’s funny, introspective and she and her husband have a solid relationship. But what will happen when they can’t talk every day or every week or directly at all?
It’s here that Mizrahy shows where we stand on ideas that sci-fi devotees know well, but remain varying stages of works-in-progress. Holland’s extended team includes experts in virtual reality, artificial intelligence and even travel hibernation, which wouldn’t help family members back on earth, but would save astronauts from experiencing months of alienating — pun perhaps intended — travel.
Mizrahy doesn’t have identical access to each piece of this story, and it shows. While Cady and Jamey appear throughout, Kayla and Tom look like they’re going to be the center of the series but, since she spent a lot of the filming time actually in space, their storyline fizzles a little. Then, when it comes to the forward-looking side, it’s instantly clear that we’re much further away from usable virtual reality and usable AI — no offense to the floating orb dubbed CIMON — than movies and TV have indicated, and nobody gives any indication of how long it might be before astronauts can be effectively “put in cryo” for their trips. The documentary shies away from what practical alternatives might work in the short-term.
Sometimes footage from the space station or from training is excellent, but when the footage just isn’t available, Mizrahy isn’t as good at coming up with alternatives. There are a few unimpressive CG representations of deep space, but it’s an attempted flourish that adds nothing. When the film shifts to an anecdote about a stressful situation in an Earth-bound Mars simulator experiment, Mizrahy resorts to half-hearted partial reenactments and then eventually gives up — too bad because it’s a good story.
These limitations hamper the documentary as it nears the end of what plays like a truncated 87-minute running time. The film never quite finds a way to tie its ideas into a larger conversation about the things that can make any human feel more connected in an increasingly compartmentalized world.
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