Richard Linklater’s periodic forays into animation (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly) have been distinctively imaginative, and that goes
double for Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood. A nostalgic but not in the least sentimental look at Texas life when the American space program was at full thrust, this highly personal but entirely accessible account of growing up in a culture both historically momentous and banal has something to offer all audiences in terms of its vivid portrait of a very specific place and time. But most receptive of all will be viewers in their 60s and beyond who have personal memories of the July 20, 1969 moon landing and a of milieu both memorable and banal.
Linklater calls this project “a memory of a fantasy” as well as a mixture of fantasy and reality, and everyone who was around at the time will certainly have their own recollections of that unique moment in time when a human being first set foot on a surface that was not part of Earth. This is no doubt the first animated film whose most receptive audience will be people of social security age rather than kids.
All the same, there is plenty to appeal here to audiences across the board, as the film spends most of its time capturing the lives and attitudes of the enormous number of Texans whose lives at that time were connected in one way or another with the space program. This is almost assuredly the most realistic and specifically evocative animated account of an actual time and place ever created.
Linklater imaginatively tells his tale on two tracks, that of day-to-day life for average families connected in one way or another to the space program and the fantasies of Linklater’s fictional stand-in, Stan (voiced by Milo Coy), who projects himself quite vividly into the realm of space travel. “You’re our only hope!,” a NASA rep tells him, “the perfect candidate for the project.” More mundanely, in real life Stan’s dad is in charge of shipping and receiving at NASA.
While Stan, in his fantasies, undergoes top secret training for the alternate version of the Apollo program, the film devotes more time to the everyday lives of his family—he has five older siblings—and the notable events of the time. Specifically noted in Stan’s amiably humorous account, and disarmingly visualized in the evocatively rough-and-ready animation, are JFK’s moon speech, the building of the Astrodome and the invention of Astroturf, the first heart transplants, the arrival of push-button phones, the Vietnam War, charmingly animated rendering of scenes from The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Dark Shadows, Hair and, last but hardly least, news accounts of the Vietnam War on TV.
“Science class felt like current events,” Stan says at one point, and the film incisively but very simply conveys a reality of the time, that momentous occurrences—from the war to the moon landing—were like anything else that was on the tube, things you could switch on and off while you plodded ahead with your daily life. And despite being connected to the space program by immediate proximity, that too was something you kept up with by watching it on television.
Linklater never hammers home sociological points—it wouldn’t be his way, nor does he need to; it’s all implicit in what he’s presenting so disarmingly onscreen, how the local populace is both intimately connected to the large historical events taking place but is also able to either ignore them or regard their involvement as a job like any other.
Most filmmakers would tend to press the political and sociological points, rub in ironies and make some kind of thesis out of their extrapolations and observations. Refreshingly, Linklater just puts a whole lot of good stuff on the table and lets you make of it what you will.
When it’s time for the actual Apollo 11 blast-off, on July 16, 1969, all gather around to watch as an animated Walter Cronkite relates the events. Stan, in his imagination, pretends to be on the mission himself, and eventually we see an animated version of the landing and Neil Armstrong’s epochal descent down the ladder to take the immortal first steps.
Linklater takes an approach to his work that’s both fastidious and breezy—he engages easily, pointing things out without heavy-handedness or sentimental nostalgia. Visually and dramatically, he maintains a light touch but, at the same time, is in formidable control. This is not an easy combination to pull off, but the result of the hard and meticulous work is one of the writer-director’s best and most personal films.