Race To Space

Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: Sean McNamara
Starring: James Woods, Alex D. Linz, William Atherton, William Devane
Rated: PG

A Sean McNamara film? Yes, that’s what it says on the posters and on the film itself. And who, pray, is Sean McNamara? Well, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, he’s a filmmaker who has been making movies in a similar key to this one for some considerable time. It’s just that previously, none of them seem to have found their way into a theater. Now, thanks to the same kind of business and aesthetic judgment that caused them to bring us The Wash, Lion’s Gate has changed all that. Usually McNamara’s films are done in cahoots with the same co-producer, cinematographer, composer and often with some of the same actors. A couple of these boasted the participation of the late Jim Varney, proving there are worse things than Ernest movies. Indeed, it’s hard not to wonder if Varney might have originally been slated to play the role of German rocket scientist Wilhelm von Huber that fell to James Woods (“Know vot I mean, Vern?”) — not that Varney could have been much worse than Woods and his comic opera-German accent. Woods, however, may well be funnier than Varney ever could have been — barking bad dialogue such as, “I don’t like monkeys!” and “Are you trying to kill my son, ja?”. This has got to be the embarrassment of Woods’ career and what he — or William Atherton or William Devane — is doing in this thing is anybody’s guess. The McNamara concept seems to be to make “family” movies — rather like those morally uplifting “faith-based” films we sometimes get, minus the religion. In this case, he turned his sights on the early days of the space race (1961, to be exact) and America’s attempts to put a man in orbit before Russians. OK. But instead of actually making a movie about this, he made a film so utterly fictionalized that it’s downright scary to think that someone might come away from it thinking that this is what actually happened. The posters claim, “Based on a true story.” The film itself carries the disclaimer that it’s a work of fiction, despite the fact that the characters include real-life first-man-in-space Alan Shepherd. Even the film’s chimpanzees got off lighter than poor Shepherd — their names were changed to protect the innocent! Woods’ obsessed, utterly Prussian (“Ve are goot Germans!”) rocket scientist is obviously supposed to be a fictionalized version of Werner von Braun — so much so that it was hard not to expect him to burst into the Tom Lehrer song about the inventor of Mr. Hitler’s V-2 missile of destruction (“Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? ‘That’s not my department,’ says Werner von Braun”). The script saddles Huber with a son, Billy (Alex D. Linz, Max Keeble’s Big Move), who is troubled by his German ancestry (the kids at school keep calling him a Nazi, of course) and the death of his mother (she died three years before the movie starts, yet is seen in photos with Billy that seem to have been taken last Tuesday) and his distant father, who only ever pays attention to him in outbursts of Otto Premingeresque P.O.W. commandant ill-humor. Billy finds salvation through bonding with the space program’s chimpanzees, their trainer (Annabeth Gish) and Alan Shepherd. Thanks to this, Huber sees the light and becomes a good, utterly Americanized father to his son. (We know he’s Americanized because he trades in his Volkswagen for a Corvette and sits on the beach drinking Pepsi with Billy out of bottles that didn’t exist for another four or five years.) Still not content, the film opts to graft on an even more fictionalized plot about xenophobic American rocket manufacturer Richard Thornhill (William Devane) trying to sabotage the space program by blackmailing NASA P.R. specialist Stanton (William Atherton) into arranging to have the rocket explode in mid-flight. (We know these are the bad guys, because they’re always shot with menacing shadows obscuring their faces.) It’s all too silly to believe a moment of it, but it does manage to produce more laughs than a lot of recent intentional comedies I could name. I will give it one point of note: The lead chimp (played by Tyler) gives a much better performance than Hayden Christensen does in Attack of the Clones. George Lucas might want to contact him for his next opus.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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