As Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong throttled a tiny space pod toward the icy surface of the moon on day five of the now historic Apollo 11 U.S. journey in 1969, they could hear mission control counting down the seconds until their fuel tank ran dry. Scouting a rugged terrain of moonholes and craters, their heart rates intensified. With two minutes left, they were still looking for a safe touchdown spot. With all the research, preparation and millions of dollars of technology and a team of hundreds watching from ground control —not to mention millions watching from around the world — it all came down to this moment. It was all or nothing. Down under one minute they found a spot and stuck the landing in for what proved to be one great step for man and one giant leap for mankind. It was a perfect landing. What proved clear was one thing: at that moment, they were risking everything.
The documentary “Apollo 11,” by director Todd Douglas Miller, premiered last week in Park City, Utah, at the 2019 Sundance festival. It reveals this scene and hundreds of others of never before seen or heard 70 mm footage that NASA captured a half a century ago. The clips, all masterfully retouched, edited and transformed into a chronologi- cally organized cinéma vérité story with limited dialogue and mind-blowing cinematography, tells a story for the ages. It offers a single imperative lesson: to make progress, we need to take chances. To succeed, we must stare down failure. To accomplish anything — to win — we need to accept the reality of the possibility of loss.
The theme resonated through many of the nearly 200 official selections that screened to viewers who traveled from all over the world and who themselves risked the snow, cold and crowds.
Knock Down the House
In the feature documentary “Knock Down the House,” director Rachel Lears follows four women who join a movement of insurgent candidates who run for House positions in the U.S. midterms without funding from the usual suspects, defying pressure they consider counterproductive to representing their working class constituents. One of whom, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a bold, young Puerto Rican bartender from the Bronx, considers doing what many would consider impossible — toppling incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in a race for Congress. The film offers intimate access to the earliest days of her race from the perspective of this zealous, idealistic, passionate and hardworking risk-taker, leading up to the now famous win, with footage of her racing to the well-televised victory party on election night, where she initially was rejected entry until she pointed out to the bouncer — with news crews waiting inside — “That’s me on the poster!”
The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
Alex Gibney, a known risk-taking filmmaker, follows the story of Elizabeth Holmes in the film “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.” The Stanford visionary founded startup company Theranos at the young age of 19, reeling in billions from well- known, wealthy friends and gaining a reputation as the next big inventor. When she introduced “the Edison,” a black box the size of a large printer promising consumers a complete blood work-up and medical diagnosis from a single finger prick at locations like the local Walgreens, her rise to popularity earned her cover stories on numerous magazines, including Fortune. Comparisons to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as well as other innovators were regularly publicly discussed and embraced. But there was a difference: She turned out to be a fraud. The company went from an estimated value of $10 billion to zero almost overnight. Producer Jessie Deeter admitted at a Q&A after the screening that she could not divulge where she got such intimate access to footage of Holmes’s rise to the top. She also let me know after the screening that she felt that she took less risk than Gibney and others making the film as folks like him would get “taken out before they got to her.”
Dan Reed, director of “Leaving Neverland,” the controversial movie about Michael Jackson, risked lawsuit, anger and controversy in a documentary (that played only once at the festival) about allegations of two boys, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, then aged seven and ten, now in their 30s, who tell of abuse by the pop star. The story describes the struggle of both boys to come to terms with what happened. No word yet on where, if ever, the film will be released to a more worldwide audience. Their team declined to talk about the risks he took in making the film when your intrepid author reached out to him.
The Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men
“The Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” documents the rise of the musical artists amid poverty, violence and oppression in their New York City neighborhoods. While it seemed they approached their music with nothing to lose, their decisions to make changes in their lifestyles to start a musical movement and stick together took sacrifice and boldness from their earliest moments together, all shown in footage never previously seen.
Ask Dr. Ruth
Dr. Ruth Westheimer risked offending the overly conservative and prudish viewers as she spoke openly about sex, masturbation, penises, vaginas, orgasms and the acceptance of all sexual activity over decades defining her career in the documentary film “Ask Dr. Ruth.” The now iconic sex therapist’s early life is woven into clips from her show, meeting with her first boyfriend and hanging out at her Washington Heights apartment, where she’s resided for over 50 years. It conveys the pain she felt as a 10-year-old who was sent to Switzerland by her father, separating her from her family to escape the Holocaust. The story is remarkably animated alongside bundles of scrapbook clippings she kept including letters she would receive from her mother and father from Germany. The letters eventually ceased; her career blossomed. Look for it on Hulu in months to come.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
In Stanley Nelson’s documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool,” we follow a very young musician who leaves his father’s farm in East St. Louis, Ill., to immerse himself into the beginnings of the Be Bop and jazz movements he founded — and found — on 52nd Street in New York City, playing alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker among other jazz greats. The film, set to the music of Miles Davis, tells the story of the incomparable trumpeter through love, addiction and loss, detailing stories alongside a precious collection of stills and footage compiled over decades. Narrated at moments by the musical legend himself, the piece includes the story of his drive for improvisational sound collaborations that gave birth to Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew with moments of selfadmitted defeat, including getting beat down by a white policeman for smoking a cigarette outside a venue where he was the top name on the marquee. It was something he never shook.
Mike Wallace is Here
Back in the 50s when television news journalism was mostly friendly, or at least not as controversial as today, a young Mike Wallace cut his teeth at a style of journalism rife with risks, exploring intensely truth-finding interviews that were peppered with tough questions. The documentary “Mike Wallace is Here” compiles the story of Wallace, including interviews with the likes of Yasser Arafat, Anwar Sadat, Manuel Noriega, Vladimir Putin, Barbra Streisand and Salvador Dalí, as well as a 30-something Donald Trump. His career took risks early on after years of being a paid actor and spokesman for products like lipstick and cigarettes. While his first attempt at a show that was unique to its time failed, he eventually got the go-ahead to be himself on a startup show called “60 Minutes.” The success of that show and Wallace in the end proved the risk was worth the reward.
Sometimes the biggest risk is trying to see outside of your norm, as we learn in the well documented Florida documentary “Pahokee.” Filmmakers Patrick Bresnan and Ivete Lucas spent years filming in the agricultural town in the Florida Everglades
(just west of the extremely affluent Palm Beaches), where most still live in the reality of poverty. Four students look to find their way out of Pahokee through school, football and entrepreneurial undertakings leading up to their graduation. Other risks come up, including moments of an actual shooting in town and the constant risk of making ends meet, including the story of BJ, who raises his child on his own.
Of course, making films and submitting to Sundance and other film festivals presents real risks to the filmmakers and investors who are looking to bring the films to greater audiences.
Many bigger film companies, including Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Magnolia and Sony, look to find films at festivals like Sundance to purchase for greater distribution. In previous years, a number of films screened at Sundance have gone on to extraordinary successes after big companies picked them up, including “Memento,” “RBG,” “Get Out,” “Winter’s Bone,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Super Size Me.”
This year several films have already been purchased with the hopes of hitting it big, including “Halston,” “Them That Follow,” “Late Night,” “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” “Hala,” “The Tomorrow Man,” “Native Son,” “Share,” “Ask Dr. Ruth,” “The Nightingale,” “The Mountain,” “The Brink,” “Little Monsters,” “The Lodge,” “Monos,” “Luce,” “Delhi Crime Story,” “Blinded by the Light,” “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men,” “David Crosby: Remember My Name” and “Where’s My Roy Cohn.”
The risk of filmmaking proves worth the reward as some of these flms got seven-figure deals. The risk then shifts to the distributors who look for the movie to make a profit. Some fail to do so; others double, triple and quadruple their original investments.
Be sure to look for many of the films from this year’s Sundance Film Festival to head to theaters and online viewing portals. Others who don’t get picked up for distribution or make it to larger audiences still took a risk, and a risk that paid off in the satisfaction of a project completed, job well done and success in other film festivals to be seen as well. ¦
—Eric Raddatz is the presentation editor at Florida Weekly and the founder of the Naples and Fort Myers Film Festivals, the current director of the latter. The ninth annual Fort Myers Film Festival takes place April 10- 14 in venues across Southwest Florida.