In Theaters


There was a time when the idea of reaching for the stars was a goal that was being pursued literally. It filled us with pride, enthusiasm and a spirit of adventure. It’s also something we seem to have lost in the years since then. Thankfully, though, there’s a new documentary that reminds us of that time, reigniting those feelings, at least for the time we’re seated in the movie theater, the stirring account of a truly historic space flight, “Apollo 11” (web site, trailer).

In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy proposed the goal of sending a man to the moon and safely returning him to the Earth, the nation zealously rallied behind this ambitious initiative in a way rarely seen in the country’s history. It was looked upon as an enormous challenge, one full of unknowns and risks. But it was embraced with tremendous enthusiasm and an irrepressible “can do” attitude. And, after years of effort, determination and sacrifice, that noble prospect was about to be realized in 1969 with the historic launch of the Apollo 11 mission.

In July of that year, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins embarked on their epic journey, backed by an army of flight engineers and technical and support staff, along with the collective encouragement of the American people and the citizens of the world. The pre-launch fervor was palpable and infectious. The fate of the intrepid trio was on everyone’s mind, with countless spectators assembled at the Kennedy Space Center and in front of their TV sets to witness the much-anticipated start of this incredible expedition, arguably the most significant event in the history of mankind.

As it lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center, the Saturn V rocket carrying the crew of the first manned mission to the moon soars into the heavens as seen in the excellent new documentary, “Apollo 11.” Photo courtesy of Neon.

Amidst great fanfare and set against the backdrop of a pristine azure sky on July 16, the enormous Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 crew blasted off into the cosmos. Onlookers stared in awe as the craft soared into the heavens. Thus began the heroic saga that a generation had awaited, its fulfillment nearly at hand.

Over the next four days, Apollo 11 made its way toward a rendezvous with its destiny. On July 20, the Eagle lunar lander separated from the spacecraft’s command module for its descent to the moon, where astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin took humanity’s first steps onto the surface of another world, truly a giant leap for mankind.

This remarkable documentary chronicles the moment-by-moment events that made up this legendary mission. Relying only on footage and audio recordings from the time, the film shows viewers what happened exclusively through the accounts of witnesses to the saga. Some of these materials will no doubt appear familiar, but others present details less known or not seen before. But, as impressive as this film is, what’s equally extraordinary is what’s shown and not told – the boundless captivation associated with this grand undertaking.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong prepares for his epic journey to the moon in the superb new documentary of this historic event, “Apollo 11.” Photo courtesy of Neon.

“Apollo 11” depicts this venture as the great endeavor it truly was, one whose occurrence resulted from an unparalleled effort by those directly involved in it and those who lent their backing to see it happen. This collectively inspired and manifested event is, arguably, the pinnacle of mankind’s accomplishments. It’s also a shining example of what we as a species are capable of when we pool our resources, both materially and energetically.

Given the magnitude of this mission and the larger program of which it was a part, it’s indeed remarkable to see what was accomplished, especially in light of the limited and far less sophisticated technology of the time. However, what’s even more astonishing is that this tremendous attainment originated with an idea, an intangible notion far removed from its tangible fulfillment. Were this principle to be employed routinely and jointly, it could be used to solve the world’s problems and create grand new conceptions, leading us to other accomplishments as enviable as any footstep taken on the lunar surface.

As noted before, though, the most significant element that made this venture work was everyone pulling together as a team. Having a collective goal can work wonders in uniting people, bringing them together for a jointly shared vision. Landing a man on the moon was perhaps one of the greatest examples of such a grand pooling of efforts. For those of us old enough to remember that time, it was something in which we all took pride, the kind of mutual undertaking we haven’t seen since – and that we could use today. Initiatives like building a border wall just aren’t in the same league as something as adventurous as planting ourselves on another world.

Standing on the surface of the moon, astronaut Neil Armstrong takes in the magnitude of this giant leap for mankind in the riveting new documentary, “Apollo 11.” Photo courtesy of Neon.

This expertly crafted account of this epic mission is quite a film. It effectively captures the look and feel not only of the event, but also of the times in which it took place, effectively evoking feelings that are both nostalgic and prideful. It reminds viewers of a time when the country truly was great and its people had something to believe in, words to the wise for those of us living in a time that’s a mere shadow of what it once was.

Inspiration can be a tremendous motivator. Let’s hope that the encouraging example set in “Apollo 11” helps to restore those feelings, emboldening us to think, live and believe audaciously once again. And, this time, maybe we’ll reach those stars after all.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

A Sea Change

When confronted with difficult situations, most of us probably do our level best to do the right thing. Were we to do otherwise, we’d likely have trouble living with ourselves, so earnestly taking steps to accommodate the circumstances often comes naturally, almost like a knee-jerk reaction. But what do we do when we’re faced with something particularly troubling, a scenario in which we’re up against seemingly impossible odds? Such circumstances push us to take a hard look at ourselves to see just how far we’ll go, a conundrum faced by a woman with her back against the wall in the new high seas drama, “Styx” (web site, trailer).

To get away from the high-stress conditions of her everyday life, Rieke (Susanne Wolff), a determined, self-assured emergency room physician, embarks on a long-cherished dream of sailing solo from Gibraltar to Ascension Island in the south central Atlantic. The independently minded thirty-something German doctor has spent a great deal of time preparing for the trip, equipping her yacht with ample supplies and charting her course in exacting detail. It would seem she’s ready for just about any contingency, a wise decision given what she’s planning to undertake.

German emergency room physician Rieke (Susanne Wolff) sets off on the adventure of a lifetime when sailing solo from Gibraltar to Ascension Island in the gripping new oceanic saga, “Styx.” Photo courtesy of Beta Cinema.

Despite the potential challenges that await her, Rieke looks forward to her journey. She’s eager to see the remote, little-visited island, particularly its distinctive vegetation, most of which was imported after one of its first visitors, Charles Darwin, reported that it had little of its own native plant life. In many ways, Ascension subsequently evolved as a sort of botanical laboratory, making it one of the most unusual and unique environments on the planet. It promises to be quite the adventure. But, not long after Rieke sets sail, the adventure proves to be more than what she bargained for.

As Rieke sets out on her voyage, she basks in the beautiful weather and looks forward to smooth sailing. However, upon making radio contact with the communications officer of a nearby freighter (Alexander Beyer), she learns that a storm lies ahead, necessitating her to batten down the proverbial hatches. And, when the bad weather hits, it proves to be quite a challenge to stay afloat, not only because of its intensity, but also because it strikes at night. But, nature’s fury aside, Rieke manages to keep her craft upright and survives to sail on.

Not long after the storm passes, however, Rieke encounters another challenge: she spots a decrepit African refugee ship that’s taking on water and slowly sinking, with an estimated 100 passengers aboard. She reports the overloaded vessel to the Coast Guard, asking the officer (Felicity Babao) what she should do. The officer thanks Rieke for reporting the incident but sternly orders her to take no further action, warning her that getting involved could conceivably make the situation worse. She also tells Rieke not to worry, assuring her that Coast Guard assistance is on the way.

Upon the sighting of a sinking African refugee ship, solo sailor Rieke (Susanne Wolff) struggles with what course of action to take in director Wolfgang Fischer’s award-winning new release, “Styx.” Photo courtesy of Beta Cinema.

The officer’s response doesn’t sit well with Rieke. As she watches the sinking ship from afar, she witnesses its passengers growing ever more desperate, some of them even leaping into the water in futile hopes of escaping the doomed vessel. Her instinctive desire to help kicks in, but, again, she’s advised to steer clear, despite the increasingly dire drama unfolding before her. And the more time passes with no sign of a Coast Guard rescue party, Rieke grows progressively frustrated. She maintains a discrete distance but feels compelled to take action. After all, as a doctor, she believes she’s got to do something for those who are clearly suffering.

Before long, Rieke’s hand is called when one of the refugees jumps ship and begins swimming toward her boat. The sickly, injured teenager (Gedion Odour Wekesa) struggles to reach her vessel, collapsing once he’s on deck. Rieke attends to his medical needs, hoping to stabilize his condition. And, as she awaits her patient to respond to treatment, she agonizes over officialdom’s quite obvious indifference to the plight of those in need of help.

However, even if she wanted to get more directly involved, there’s little that Rieke could realistically do to assist the other refugees. Her sailboat is far too small to accommodate all of the remaining passengers. And, considering this limitation, how could she possibly be the one to decide who gets saved and who doesn’t? Yet standing by and doing nothing is no answer, either. Rieke struggles to devise a solution, a problem that’s made more complicated when her patient regains consciousness and hysterically demands that she do something.

With no sign of the Coast Guard coming to the refugees’ aid, Rieke finally takes matters into her own hands. To say what she does would reveal too much, but suffice it to say that her truly innovative solution carries a tremendous cost for those involved. Nevertheless, impossible situations often call for improbable approaches to arrive at agreeable outcomes.

While attending to an injured African refugee (Gedion Odour Wekesa, laying on deck), physician and sailor Rieke (Susanne Wolff, standing) struggles to help those in need while awaiting help from a noticeably absent Coast Guard rescue party in “Styx.” Photo courtesy of Beta Cinema.

This multifaceted saga most obviously involves the fate of the refugees, but there are other aspects of this tale that are just as important, even if not as plainly apparent. Where the primary story thread is concerned, there are multiple outlooks in play – those of the authorities, whose concern is questionable at best, those of Rieke, which are clearly driven by compassion, and those of the refugees, who are ostensibly testing the character of their would-be rescuers. Resolution will depend on which outlooks hold sway, a circumstance that fundamentally means multiple outcomes are ultimately possible, for better or worse.

Based on the conversations and events here, sadly, the attitudes of officialdom are quite telling. The authorities are only too willing to assist an affluent White European woman but unconcerned in coming to the aid of a group of Black African refugees, women and children included. Politically correct rhetoric and pronouncements aside, the actions of officials here thus speak volumes about what their real views are.

But this question is not the only issue put to the test in this situation. Rieke’s personal character is challenged by what’s unfolding around her, forcing her into addressing issues like transformation, innovation, sacrifice and salvation, both for those she’s trying to help as well as for herself. She’s in a very fluid situation as she assesses the conditions and attempts to come up with solutions for attending to them. It not only calls forth traits she already possesses, but it also pushes the emergence of others, including some of which she may have previously been unaware, enabling her to evolve in ways she may not have envisioned when she embarked on her journey. She may find that surprising. But, then, given her projected destination – Ascension Island, a locale distinguished by its own exploration of the concept of evolution – her character-testing experience with the refugees is an ironically fitting reflection of that idea where she’s concerned personally.

In addition to these considerations, the film is loaded with religious symbolism fitting to the story. First there’s the title, “Styx,” a reference to the river the deceased traversed in journeying to the Underworld in Greek mythology, an appropriate symbol for a life and death situation taking place on water. From the story itself, there’s Rieke’s experience with the storm, an event that serves as her own “dark night of the soul” experience, one in which she’s tested on the resilience of her faith in herself and in the assumed support of the Universe. And then there’s Rieke’s stated destination, “Ascension” Island, a place whose name reflects the transformative nature of her journey, a designation that metaphorically embodies the divine ascendancy attained by Christ after a life of salvation and compassion toward others, acts that Rieke unhesitatingly engages in herself when circumstances warrant. These narrative enhancements aren’t intended to evangelize audiences, but they add nuance to the story, strengthening the film’s prevailing viewpoints, ultimately making for a more powerful and more meaningful picture, one worthy of the introspection it was designed to engender.

Despite some occasional pacing issues, this fact-based, richly symbolic drama sizzles with quiet intensity against the backdrop of beautiful ocean scenery. The picture’s thoughtfully constructed script leaves viewers with much to ponder, some of it inspiring, some of it unsettling, but you’re sure not to come away from this one feeling neutral. Susanne Wolff’s superb portrayal of a woman pitted against the perils of nature and the difficulty of hard choices is riveting from start to finish. Director Wolfgang Fischer’s minimalist approach suits the story perfectly, especially when enlivened by its positively gorgeous cinematography. There’s a good chance that this consuming release will leave you drained, and incensed, but also, one would hope, uplifted.

“Styx” has primarily been screening on the film festival circuit, where it has garnered numerous awards and nominations. A limited theatrical release is currently under way as well; check your local film listings and the film’s web site for details. And, by the way, those who dislike reading subtitles should note that, even though this is a German-Austrian co-production, most of the dialogue is in English.

Our ability to take the interests of others into account is often seen as one of  the traits that separates us from the animals. Self-interest is assumed to be substituted by selflessness. But, as this film shows, that may not always be the case; it’s a point on which we might well fail. Thankfully, though, there are those who believe in living up to that loftier aspiration, even when the going gets tough. That’s one of those qualities that defines us as humans – and that puts the “human” in “humanity.” Let’s hope we never lose sight of that.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

On the Radio This Week

Join host Frankie Picasso and me this Thursday, March 28, for the latest edition of Movies with Meaning on The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More broadcast. We’ll look at a variety of new releases and share the latest movie news. For the video version, tune in on Facebook Live at 1 pm Eastern by clicking here. And, for the audio-only podcast edition, check out The Good Media Network’s home page by clicking here. Join us for some lively movie chat!

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