Tag Archives: Documentary

City Hall

5 Nov

Cambridge documentarian Frederick Wiseman turns his camera on Boston for a sprawling four-hour immersive portrait of the city.

Tom Meek for the Patriot Ledger
November 3, 20202

For his 45th documentary feature Frederick Wiseman trains his lens on his native Boston to record all things municipal unfolding in the cement encased corridors of Gerhard Kallmann’s infamous Brutalist facade. The retrospective of how we operate and function in the Hub is an engrossing four-and-half-hour watch (yes, you heard that right) that amazingly goes by in a blip and serves as something of an eerie — and taunting — time capsule. Shot during 2018 and 2019, one segment has Mayor Marty Walsh and authorities preparing for the Wold Champion Red Sox Duck Boat celebration. Later we see fans chanting “Mookie, Mookie, Mookie.” Betts famously left us in 2019 and recently performed his heroics in the 2020 World Series for that team we vanquished in 2018 (the L.A. Dodgers), and all that Wiseman’s camera captures, strangely feels from another era as the city bustles in pre-COVID normalcy — one can only imagine what a 2020-2021 version of “City Hall” might look like.

The Government Center delve unfolds in a series of chapter-esque meanders between the micro and macro with plenty of shots of Boston’s iconic skyline and landmarks to root you. The rendering should make plenty of Beantowners proud and Walsh, seemingly ever aware of the camera, comes off crisp, progressive and inclusive — a shining illumination that may pose something of an extra hurdle for upcoming challenger Michelle Wu and others. In Wiseman’s classic observant, cinema verite style (fly-on-the-wall) there are several long takes of municipal proceedings such as the budget review where presenters effusively tout the investment in infrastructure as a win-win because it not only betters the community, but also makes the city’s debt more appealing to bond investors. It’s a cut-and-dry matter that under Wiseman’s eye is more interesting and accessible than it sounds, but “City Hall’ is most affecting when following the day-to-day operations of front liners, namely the 311 help center workers trying to iron out neighborhood issues or city magistrates mitigating parking tickets — an anxious expecting father who parked in front of a hydrant and an incredulous old-schooler who didn’t know there was resident parking along Congress Street — and then there are those out in the community removing trash and providing subsidized veterinary care.

What’s truly amazing to note too is that Wiseman, at the age of 90, is still cranking out documentaries on a near annual basis and does all the editing to boot. For those not familiar with the works of the Academy Award honored documentarian, a law professor at BU and Brandeis before picking up the camera, they’re slice of life exposés that quietly drink in their subjects without question, preface or prod the way you might get from a Michael Moore (“Roger & Me,” or “Fahrenheit 9/11″) or Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”). The result conjures an uncanny sense of intimacy; there’s no barrier, you are organically and viscerally part of the scene. “City Hall” in scope and focus feels like a natural addition to the the director’s unofficial community series that began with “Aspen” (1991) and includes “Belfast, Maine” (1999)” and “Jackson Heights” (2015). Must see Wiseman films in my not-so-humble opinion are “Boxing Gym” (2010) and his controversial first film, “Titicut Follies” (1967) about the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which, because of its graphic nature, was banned from being shown in Massachusetts until the early 1990s.

The most moving and telling scenes in “City Hall” are those steeped in earnest reveals and communal conflict. Talking to veterans afflicted by addiction and PTSD, Walsh shares candidly his dark days as an alcoholic. The connection both onscreen and in the room is immediate and palpable, something that doesn’t quite register as much when Walsh underscores his Irish heritage as a bridge to a Latino community. Then there’s the Thanksgiving feast for those challenged by Down syndrome and similar arresting disorders where Walsh and crew dutifully serve expectant diners and cap it all off with dancing. Wiseman never lets his lens sway you, but if you don’t have a bittersweet bump inside you, you probably didn’t flinch when Old Yeller died. The big rub in the film comes during a community outreach meeting run by a predominately Asian coalition of businessmen seeking to institute a recreational cannabis facility in a predominately Black and brown section of Dorchester. The two sides talk at each other, the rhetoric’s tinged with the annoyance of not being heard and there’s the clear fear of being taken advantage of, with the city and the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission — who are not in the room — taking the brunt of the shots. It’s a telling back and forth that raises the question of equitable economic development and how to earnestly empower a community in the process without gutting them.

One of the things that makes Wiseman’s films so captivating is the sense of cadence and human rhythm he imbues them with. “Boxing Gym” and his 2009 ballet troupe portrait “La danse” are driven by repetition and pursuit of form. In “City Hall” there are mesmerizing long takes of mattresses and barbecue grills being obliterated and compacted by a garbage truck’s compressor and long spindly tree limbs are methodically pulled in and consumed by a restless wood shredder — activities quite mundane and everyday, that in Wiseman’s purview magically become hypnotic wonderments. Also too, Wiseman’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer John Davey artfully finds Escher-esque motifs and reflections within reflections amid our familiar facades. His upward angled framings cut aesthetic portraits of old Scollay Square and the bland Saltonstall building in ways one might not have imagined possible. “City Hall” in the end, is a dutiful reflection of who we are, where we came from and a piquant insider look into the vast municipal neural net that keeps us humming as a community.

I am Greta

25 Oct

‘I Am Greta’: Young environmentalist speaks; Whether we listen lies beyond director’s lens

By Tom Meek
Friday, October 23, 2020

The documentary “I Am Greta,” about teen environmentalist Greta Thunberg and the lengths she goes to spotlight the climate crisis, is a testament to commitment and passion. It’s also a film that feels like it only scratches the surface about its subject, her family and, more so, her cause.

The film centers on Thunberg’s Atlantic crossing in a carbon neutral yacht to give a speech to the United Nations’ climate summit in New York. She won’t fly “because of the enormous climate impact of aviation.” Filmmaker Nathan Grossman tags along, but first sets us up with some of Thunberg’s grassroots activism, including sitting on streets with signs calling out global plunder by carbon-consuming corporations and world powers. We also get a smattering of barbs from Trump, other globally positioned strongmen and climate change deniers – whose pockets Thunberg would say are lined by big carbon – disparaging the young activist. One talking head even digs in on Thunberg’s Asperger’s, tagging it as a flaw and dismissing her as a young girl with a weakness. Thunberg says the neurological condition allows her to “see through the static,” and seems to handle the pressure pretty well. She’s also a kid, and there are plenty of scenes with her and her father (the mother remains largely offscreen), who accompanies her to most of her speaking engagements. Grossman has quite intimate access to their interactions, even when Thunberg, in a dour mood, won’t get out of bed at her dad’s behest.

What will probably most enlighten the audience is Thunberg’s fiery eloquence. Half of it’s in her native Swedish, but when Thunberg gets up before the UN speaking in English, it’s sharp, well-honed rat-a-tat rhetoric: “I want you to panic, I want you to act as if the house is on fire” and “humanity sees nature as bottomless bag of candy” and some generation shaming (“You’ve stolen my dreams and my future, how dare you!”). It’s there finally that the film does something to take up Thunberg’s cause, serving up the hard reflection of one generation putting the next in jeopardy.

Grossman’s style for the most is Frederick Wiseman-like, fly-on-the-wall. It’s captivating to let Thunberg be herself and us observe quietly, but from an insight and understanding perspective there remains a frustrating remove. It’s Thunberg in the end in the end who punches through. She’s heard, but did the world listen?

Desert One

23 Aug

‘Desert One’: Rescue attempt in Iran was daring, but risk and repercussion dig in with Eagle Claw

By Tom Meek

Barbara Kopple’s meticulous dissection of the failed Operation Eagle Claw mission, launched in 1980 to rescue Iranian hostages, serves as a gripping connect-the-dots weave of history, harrowing personal testimony and world-shaping events. Without much judgment the film dials back to the 1950s when Iran was the hot, oil-rich country Western powers jockeyed to get in on. Later the CIA helped topple a brief nationalist government in a coup d’état and reinstall a shah, and Kopple’s doc delivering a montage of him in chummy photo ops with every president from Truman onward. The doc also subtly metes out snippets of the shah’s abysmal, brutal human rights record. Then comes the defining moment of the overthrow, the extreme hatred for America and the takeover of the U.S. embassy – that final event told by several staffers and military personnel who would become hostages, recalling the chaotic mayhem of angry Iranians scaling the gates and storming the building.

The now infamous Iranian hostage crisis would become a 444-day ordeal. That extraction mission – the first Delta Force operation – was green-lit by then President Jimmy Carter, and its failure, as the film has it, was the key to him being swept out of office by Ronald Reagan. Carter and his VP, Walter Mondale, appear in the film, as do several of the commandos who recall the surreal scene in the desert outside of Tehran where several Sikorsky Sea Stallions that couldn’t handle the sandstorms failed, leading to the ultimate decision to abort. The evacuation, for those who don’t recall, would go horribly awry, and eight military personnel would wind up burnt alive. Before that, when the Delta Forces arrived at the remote location, a busload of civilians happened bizarrely upon them in the middle of the night and had to be taken hostage by the commandos. Then several other vehicles arrived; there was confusion, a skirmish and a massive explosion. I don’t want to give aways all the details, but Kopple does a great job of stitching together a thrilling narrative with archival footage, personal accounts from those who were there in the desert (one marine, tough and on point, breaks down on camera; one of those Iranian citizens from the bus recalls his own experience of being held without knowing why) and to re-create the drama in the desert, Kopple smartly opts to use animation much as Ari Folman did with “Waltz with Bashir” (2008) and Randall Christopher did with “The Driver is Red” (2017) – the former about an Israeli incursion into Lebanon and the latter about the hunt for Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. In all three cases, animation creates a provocative abstraction to put you on the scene more viscerally than a dramatic recreation might. It’s a brilliant mix of media forms that seamlessly deepens the global and human context of what transpired. Kopple won Oscars for her first two documentaries, “Harlan County U. S. A.” (1976) and “American Dream” (1990), both depicting labor disputes in middle America. Since then Kopple’s lens has been trained on such diverse and unique topics as Woody Allen and his union with Soon-Yi Previn in “Wild Man Blues” (1997) and the Dixie Chicks’ media battle over statements opposing then President George W. Bush in “Shut Up & Sing” (2006). Kopple’s latest is something new and powerful, not just because of the implied what-ifs, but because of the heroism, sacrifice and personal tales of survival.

Represent

14 Aug

‘Represent’: Embedded with three campaigns, women from all over the hard-to-navigate map

By Tom Meek


Another politically themed doc this week (along with “Boys State”), “Represent” looks at women running for political office in the Midwest. Under the observance of Hillary Bachelder’s lens, Myya Jones, a 22-year-old, tries to spark a youth movement by running for mayor of Detroit; Bryn Bird, a farmer and working mother in small town Ohio, seeks a township trustee post; while Julie Cho, a Korean immigrant, runs as a Republican candidate for state representative in a liberal Chicago suburb. The timelines aren’t all that linear, but most interesting is Cho, who, ostensibly because she is not a typical GOP candidate (“rich, white male”) is abandoned by the party during her campaign but also takes veiled racial pokes (she’s in an interracial marriage) from the liberal opposition – “Why don’t you go run in the Korean neighborhood?” To which she notes to the camera that only the left gets away with that kind of racism these days. Her idealism to embed and change the party feels like the right quest, but lack of support and the attacks she faces on the trail take their toll. Her frustration and weariness are palpable, and yet she remarkably soldiers on. We catch up with Bird already in office and making policy, some of which is not popular, and in one telling scene she remarks on how one of her jobs affects the other when formerly loyal customers, rankled by her policies and communal decisions, walk by her stand at a farmers market without a hello. What’s remarkable about Bachelder’s doc is the degree of access and trust she gains from her subjects. You could call it “Girls State: The Real World Edition.”

“Represent” shows as part of the the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.

Boys State

14 Aug

‘Boys State’: Re-creating America in miniature, dominated by right whites (then comes a twist)

By Tom Meek

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ immersion into the Girls and Boys State mock political programs, which have for decades turned out leaders of tomorrow such as Bill Clinton, Ann Richards and Dick Cheney, is both an eye-opener and a reason for pause. For “Boys State” the documentarians embedded in 2017 with the Texas chapter, where 1,100 17-year-olds assemble for a fortnight in the capital, divide into two parties (Nationalist and Federalists), develop platforms and elect a governor – the highest official rank to be reached, and the final act of the educational event sponsored by the American Legion.

Sounds pretty wholesome and promising, right? And it is, on one hand (the passion for politics and democracy, a clear win), but at times the hooting, testosterone-amped crowd of mostly white lads (“I’ve never seen so many white people ever,” one African American attendee reflects) eerily calls to mind the tiki torch marchers in Charlottesville. The agendas too feel skewed to the right – pro-gun, pro-life (“if there’s a rape, we don’t punish the child, we find the rapist and castrate him!”) and “back the blue.” Given the lack of color, it’s refreshing to see a son of undocumented parents rise to run for governor, bolstered by a somber, reflective approach rather than shouted platitudes such as “freedom!” and “a vote for me is a vote for all!” The use of Instagram and other social media is impressive, though it’s often mean, personal and racist. Drinking in “Boys State” instills a sense of hope, and dread. It’s a slice of America if lived on a landlocked “Lord of the Flies” isle, where you know boys will be boys.

Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine’

14 Aug

‘Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine’: In on the joke, and at least once on with the band

By Tom Meek

The original title to this nostalgic dial back was “Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine,” the “Boy Howdy” being the rock magazine’s identifying icon, conjured up by legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb (allegedly in exchange for the mag covering the costs of a medical treatment). The posted title of Scott Crawford’s documentary reflects the storied magazine’s sub-banner, an intentional eff-you to “Rolling Stone,” which launched a few months earlier. As the talking heads in the film have it – including former editors and writers there – “Rolling Stone” was a highbrow culture magazine, while “Creem,” named after the rock group Cream, was just about rock ’n’ roll and adoringly true to its Detroit roots throughout its 20-year existence. It was posture and pose versus edgy, raw ardor.

Interestingly, one of those talking heads recalling Creem with such zeal is film director Cameron Crowe (“Singles,” “Jerry McGuire”) whose experience as a Rolling Stone writer gave him the seeds for the bittersweet rock romance “Almost Famous” (2000). Another ardent fan, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, grew up close enough to bike down to Creem’s offices (described as “aesthetic squalor”) and rues that he never made the pages of the mag. Other rewinds about drop-ins from Detroit rock royalty such as Iggy Pop, Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper dot the film; one time, a Creem journalist embedded with the band Kiss onstage for a show.

The Creem reflected in film feels much like the early days at the Boston Phoenix that I heard about when I joined back in the early 1990s – underground culture, alternative music and cult films, all done for peanuts by hustling journos who’d rather be at a late-night gig and write about it the next day than pull down big dollars as a stolid nine-to-fiver. It was about passion and the vibe, and Crawford gets his finger on that. The film would make a nice double bill with “Other Music,” which also played the Brattle’s Virtual Screening Room this year. The personalities at Creem – including publisher Barry Kramer and critic and editor Lester Bangs, who both died before the magazine flamed out – were clearly a strong and agitated olio. As one surviving commentator said of its legacy and embraced irreverence, “either you’re in on the joke or you were the joke.” Rock on.

A Most Beautiful Thing

29 Jul

Pulling together: Boston filmmaker tells story of first Black rowing team

Boston filmmaker Mary Mazzio’s documentary “A Most Beautiful Thing,” which recounts the travails of the first Black high school crew team in the country, was supposed to open in theaters back in March but the COVID-19 swell altered that and still holds a lingering effect on the film’s release. AMC, the theater chain that Mazzio has an arrangement with, has yet to get back up and running and so Mazzio, with her finger on the pulse of social issues and more topographically, in light of the George Floyd slaying and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, is pushing ahead with the film’s release on Xfinity Friday, July 31, and releasing on other major streaming platforms at staggered future dates — Sept. 1 on Peacock and Oct. 14 on Amazon Prime.

Mazzio, a former Olympic rower, notched her unique arrangement with AMC when the theater was exploring means to address complaints that most films exhibited carried unflattering stereotypes of people of color and underrepresented communities, and as a result was actively seeking more positive and aspirational material. “Positively diverse,” is how Mazzio said (then) CEO Gerry Lopez described it. It was a natural fit as AMC snapped up several of Mazzio projects like “Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon” (2009) that detailed a business plan competition with teen entrants from high-crime, inner city communities like Harlem, Compton, Chicago and Baltimore, and “Underwater Dreams” (2014), which chronicled teens of undocumented parents who come together and go head-to-head against MIT in an underwater robotics competition.

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Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

31 May

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Because of his WASPy, blue-blooded demeanor and cheeky curiosity, George Plimpton always stuck me as a something of a cross between Thurston Howell III and Hawkeye Pierce – the latter maybe because Alan Alda played Plimpton in the 1968 film based on the writer’s bestselling book, “Paper Lion.” Directors Tom Bean and Luke Poling, in their plumbing of the author, editor and sometimes actor, seek to paint a portrait of a man who was more than the sum of his stunts, which famously included turns as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions, goalie for the Boston Bruins, acting with John Wayne and performing with the New York Philharmonic.

Plimpton choose to call these endeavors “participatory journalism,” and it made for good readership in the pages of Sports Illustrated back in the days when Hemingway and Richard Ford were turning in copy. (There was also a “Plimpton! Adventures in Africa” TV series in the early ’70s, hence the film’s title.) He was a string bean of a kid – one of the big reveals early in the film is Plimpton at the prestigious Exeter boarding school failing to make a sports team, which makes his bold undertakings later in life feel like he had something to prove. The main event the film homes in on is Plimpton going a few rounds with boxing legend Archie Moore, the only man to fight both Ali and Rocky Marciano.

And where there is George Plimpton, there is The Paris Review, the literary magazine Plimpton help found in the ’50s and edited until his death in 2003. His love of figures such as Hemingway and Roth is palpable throughout the film, especially in his relentless pursuit to get such luminaries to sit down for interviews. As the doc progresses, Plimpton’s love of the Review shines through even brighter as he becomes a pitch person for car sales and garage openers to make money to support the literary rag. The ads make for a wonderful little time capsule.

Plimpton, as the movie paints him, was a romantic and idealist who kept close ties with the Kennedy family and was there to help wrest the gun from Sirhan Sirhan’s hand when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Plimpton also enjoyed a party, hosting late-night soirees in New York with the likes of Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe and Allen Ginsberg. His son Taylor, who reads some of his father’s pieces throughout the film, recounts being kept up regularly by the late-night carousing. Plimpton was also friends with Hugh Hefner and dabbled in acting – we all know of his turn as a shrink in “Good Will Hunting” (1997), but he also had small parts in “Rio Lobo” (1970) and even “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962).

Not all were warm to the eclectic Plimpton. Several literati, such as James Salter, make brief appearances in the film to brand him a “dilettante” – something echoed by Plimpton himself, as the film is imbued with an eerie sense of rue that the journo did not produce “more serious” works.

Other notable local flavorings include former hockey player and coach Mike Milbury, who was one of the Bruins whom Plimpton (often seen wobbling on skates in clips) embedded with, and co-director Poling, who later partnered with Independent Film Festival Boston founder Adam Roffman for the beguiling 2015 short doc, “Spearhunter.”

Bigger familiar faces who make the doc include Ken Burns; “The Wild Bunch” (1969) screenwriter Walon Green, who directed an episode of the “Plimpton!” show; and author Jay McInerney (“Bright Lights, Big City”) whose literary career Plimpton helped launch. Bean and Poling’s balanced tribute makes clear Plimpton was a lover of adventure and new things, and wanted to bringing those experiences firsthand to his readers – and to do so he was unafraid to go into the lion’s den.

The Ghost of Peter Sellers

25 May

‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers’: Failed film haunts, so director does retake on a cruel comic genius

 

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“The Ghost of Peter Sellers” is something of a therapy session for director Peter Medak, who worked with Sellers on the abysmal 1973 pirate comedy “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” Medak was an up-and-comer hot off the 1972 hit “The Ruling Class” and chanced into Sellers – the world’s most revered comic actor of the time – and at the “Pink Panther” star’s behest, agreed to helm the film conceived by Sellers’ comedic running mate, Spike Milligan. Medak, 35 at the time, said yes (“How could I not?”) and the film went on to be an unmitigated disaster. It ran well over budget, and has still never fully been released.

What we get from Medak’s unique point of view – which is kind of meta, as he’s a filmmaker making a documentary about the making of a film he made – is rue, remiss and a tang of anger. Sellers, after all, pretty much quit the film early on and, as Medak has it, did plenty to undermine the young director and upend a once-promising career. The film is not a hit piece on Sellers, though, and ultimately embraces the troubled star as it delves into his several messy relationships, cardiovascular issues and, as Medak frames with care, mental health issues. Medak’s assessment of his star is backed by Sellers’ daughter, who provides earnest and thoughtful insights.

What’s also amazing to glean from Medak’s rewind is his own journey as a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Hungary during World War II and the Communist iron glove that took hold during the formation of the Soviet Union. But nothing looms as large as Sellers to Medak; it’s the thing that has consumed him for years, and the use of “ghost” is the title is more than apt. The dissection of the production, the filmmaking process and the shenanigans of Sellers and Milligan provide for jaw drops, be it Sellers leveraging his heart condition via a doctor’s note so he could go party in a pub, or the magical transformation of a Chinese junk into the pirate ship only to have it crash on its maiden voyage. Similar films about the making of great films (from the clips of “Noon” that you see here, you know that is not the case), “Burden of Dreams” (1982, about “Fitzcarraldo”) and “Hearts of Darkness” (1991, about “Apocalypse Now”) are more distant and observant; “Ghost of Peter Sellers” to me felt like a somber “The Other Side of the Wind” (2018), Orson Welles’ last, unfinished film framed inside of a documentary. There’s loose narrative play in that film, but Medak here stays close to his heart. In the end he brings it all home while shedding light on careers and films worth remembering … even if the one he’s focused on is not one of them.

Spaceship Earth

10 May

 

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One of my daughter’s favorite rides at Disney World is Spaceship Earth, so it caught her attention when I told her I was seeing a movie called just that, and left her crestfallen when she learned it was essentially a Nat Geo special about old people living in a greenhouse in the desert. The documentary by Matt Wolf follows the rise and fall of (and what went horribly wrong with) Biosphere 2, the artificial environment built in Oracle, Arizona, where, from 1991 to 1993 eight people sealed themselves off in a self-sustaining complex as an experiment to see if humans could live in a contained terrarium without the regular gifts of Mother Earth – aka Biosphere 1.

The stage is set as a bunch of San Francisco idealists and entrepreneurs caught between the Wall Street greed of the 1980s and the Internet bubble conceive an experiment in controlled sustainability and, with deep pockets, build it and select their earthbound astronauts – which, like the Starship Enterprise, has a scientist, doctor, biologist and engineer among the crew. Their mission: to live in the mini Earth (it has its own sea) for two years without contact, nutrients, sustenance or air from the outside. Sunshine is fair game.

Given where we’re at today, you could view Biosphere 2 as the ultimate quarantine, but it’s when personalities take center stage that “Spaceship Earth” gets interesting. Of the eight people in scientific lockdown there’s a couple, a fitness freak physician who waves his virility wide and high to a near gonzo degree, and the must-have MacGyver, ever with screwdriver in hand and donning a utility belt as things go bust now and then. The big challenges inside the bubble come when oxygen levels get low, or one woman gets her hand caught in a straw shredder; outside, project head John Allen, who comes off as something of a cult leader, is embroiled in court proceedings regarding control of the endeavor. It’s one of a few small failings of Wolf’s doc that the enigmatic persona of Allen, a self-described ecologist and early climate change whistleblower, remains vague and unprobed. As the film has it, many in the science community labeled him a hack and Biosphere 2 a stunt producing no real data of value. Times have changed, however, and that’s another failing: There’s no contextual relevance for the experiment to our Biosphere 1 today.

Wolf’s straight-ahead use of archival footage and interviews with surviving terrarium astronauts (terranauts) is effective in conveying the more intriguing narrative of how personalities played off each other in such a confined petri dish. It’s a chronicle of a curious blip in history, a time capsule of the era and food for thought for the future, especially in these self-contained times.