The Farthest, one more gem from BBC 4’s Storyville

The Farthest.

When the accomplished film editor Emer Reynolds first moved up to Dublin from Tipperary it was to study science at Trinity College. But she was soon distracted by and diverted to the world of film. 

So she was the perfect candidate to tackle what is one of the most extraordinary stories of the 20th century. Combining as she does a passion for science and a wealth of knowledge about the craft of storytelling. The resulting film, The Farthest, is a joy and a wonder to behold.

Saturn, from Voyager 1.

One of the conundrums posed by space travel is; the further you go, the more fuel you need to take on board. The more fuel you take, the bigger the space craft needed. And the bigger the vehicle, the more fuel you need. And so on.

But in the late 60s, the boffins at Nasa realised that, once you’d mastered the fiendishly complex maths, you could send a space craft to a planet on exactly the right trajectory so that it ends up going into orbit around it.

And you could then use that orbit to ‘sling-shot’ the space craft on to wherever it was that you wanted it to then go. Once you got it into that initial orbit, there wouldn’t be any need for any additional fuel.

Jupiter, from Voyager 1.

And that furthermore, for the one and only time in around 176 years, the four main gas giants of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune would be in alignment between 1975 and 77.

So they set about designing and building what would become Voyager 1 and 2, which were both launched in the late summer of 1977. And what had previously been seen as but four blurry dots were suddenly transformed into glorious, detailed technicolour.

The Farthest has three components. First and foremost, it’s the nuts and bolts story of the building and launching of the two space craft, as recounted by the individuals involved, a remarkably large number of whom spoke to Reynolds and her crew. 

The extraordinary photo of the solar system that Carl Sagan got Voyager 1 to take before moving off for the edge of the solar system. That less then 1 pixel dot is us.

Then, it’s the story of the fabled golden record that Carl Sagan oversaw the creation of, and which each vehicle carries a copy of. This was and is an audio-visual record of life here on Earth, should any intelligent life come into contact with them at any point in the future.

And finally, it’s a gentle musing on the nature of humanity. Because, apart from anything else, when we are all dead and buried and all signs of what was once life here on this planet have long since disappeared, the only remnant of our existence will be carried on those two golden discs.

The Farthest is everything you’d want in a documentary. Thrilling, uplifting and utterly compelling, you can see the trailer for The Farthest here:

And the full doc (which 90 minutes despite this recording clocking at 120) is available here:

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Habaneros, BBC doc on the Cuban revolution.

Havaneros – You Say You Want a Revolution.

Habaneros, the BBC’s brilliant new documentary charting the history of Cuba, completes an unlikely comeback for Julian Temple, one time enfant terrible of British cinema.

Temple shot to fame in 1980, when he documented the rapid rise and demise of the Sex Pistols in The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. In it, Malcolm McLaren cleverly presents himself as the evil Svengali pulling all the strings, and the brains, therefore, behind the band’s success.

On the back of which, Temple was handed the reigns on Absolute Beginners in 1985, which duly became the most expensive film ever made in Britain, and which was supposed to have established Goldcrest as a rival for the big Hollywood studios across the pond.

Absolute Beginners.

Instead of which, the film bombed, the quote studio unquote crashed – aided by the disaster that was the Al Pacino vehicle Revolution – and Temple departed with his tail between his legs in the general direction of the Hollywood hills.

One of the peculiarities of the film industry is that it is always better to have made something, anything, however vacuous, than to have more prudently done nothing at all. So once there, they gave him more money to make his second feature, the instantly forgettable Earth Girls Are Easy, from ‘88. He spent the next decade making equally forgettable if impressively expensive music videos for big name artists like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, The Kinks and David Bowie.

The Great Rock and Roll Swindle.

But his unlikely comeback began in 2000 with The Filth and the Fury, his well-received Pistols doc which went someway to correcting the biases of his earlier venture. While in 2015, he made the Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, one of the many, many impeccable Storyville docs that BBC4 has been producing over the last decade (reviewed earlier here). And now this, once again under the auspices of the BBC, this magisterial doc charting the history of Cuba over the past hundred years or so.

The first half of Habaneros charts the history of Cuba in the run up to the revolution in ’59. The repeated interference of the US throughout the first half of the century, which eventually produced the Batista revolution in 1933. But he quickly proved himself to be every bit as corrupt as the regime he’d revolted against, and he and his acolytes bled the island dry before retiring to Florida in ’44. But he returned once more in ’52 when he was re-installed as a US puppet – imagine that, a US backed military coup to overthrow a democratically elected foreign government. Well there’s a first.

Havaneros.

But in ‘56, the exiled Fidel Castro sailed back to the island with 81 troops, only to be immediately ambushed on landing. Just the 12 of them survived, fleeing in desperation for the hills of the Sierra Maestra, with the sum total of seven rifles between them. But in what must surely be the most unlikely successful revolution ever embarked upon, just three years later he and Che Guevara marched triumphantly into Havana on News Year’s Day of 1959, having taken control of the entire island.

This first half of the film is undoubtedly the more lively of the two, as Temple brilliantly mixes media, telling the breathless story of the lead up to the revolution through a montage of carefully chosen interviews, archive footage and animation, on to which he superimposes newspaper and magazine pages that comment on the visuals and voice over underneath.

The second half then follows the history of the island in the wake of that revolution, from the Bay of Pigs, to the Cuban missile crisis, the cold war and the eventual collapse of the Soviet bloc in the‘90s, which resulted in their sole source of funding disappearing into the ether.

Viva la revolucion!

As scrupulously fair as you’d expect from one of the many projects overseen by the peerless Alan Yentob, the second half is inevitably less exciting than the pre-revolutionary fervour that precedes it. As on the one hand, the revolution continues to be celebrated by some, who rightly point to the heroic resistance that the island has maintained against the avaricious interference and oafish grandstanding of its bullying neighbour to the West. And on the other, there are all those who lament how inevitably disappointing that revolution proved to be for the lives that so many of the islanders were forced to live.

It’s a brilliant film, intoxicatingly so in its first half, and everyone involved, especially Temple, should take a very deep bow.

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