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1998’s From the Earth to the Moon is the best fictional retelling of the Apollo program

The HBO miniseries doesn’t just tell you the story of the astronauts. It tells you the story of everything else, too.

From the Earth to the Moon
From the Earth to the Moon dramatizes the highs and lows of the Apollo program.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In Watch This, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff tells you what she’s watching on TV — and why you should watch it too. Read the archives here. This week: HBO’s 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, which will soon be re-available on HBO Go and HBO Now.

It’s easy to forget now that it’s a titan of entertainment, but HBO’s ascent was as disruptive in its day to broadcast television as Netflix’s has been now.

What had started out as a network devoted simply to giving subscribers a chance to watch Hollywood movies slowly began offering its own programming. At first, those programs were junk, like the 1984-91 comedy 1st & 10, notable now for featuring O.J. Simpson as a football player for the fictional California Bulls.

But in the ’90s, HBO started to turn a corner. Its showbiz satire The Larry Sanders Show (1992-98) garnered considerable Emmy attention, and its made-for-TV movies regularly became awards magnets, with even a few film critics praising them as good enough for the multiplexes. (This was a much bigger deal in the ’90s.)

It wasn’t until 1998, however, when HBO broke out in a huge way. Its summer programming that year included the first season of Sex and the City and the second season of Oz (which more critics embraced in that second year). And just before that, in the spring, the network aired its then-biggest show ever: the Tom Hanks and Ron Howard-produced miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.

And now, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, HBO has made a newly remastered edition of all 12 hours of the series available to watch again, as a reminder of why these half-century old events inspire us and create wonder to this day.

From the Earth to the Moon is a wonderful example of how point of view can make stories you already think you know come alive

From the Earth to the Moon arose out of Hanks and Howard’s desire to examine the Apollo program in greater detail, after the mega-success of their 1995 movie Apollo 13 (starring Hanks and directed by Howard). The miniseries format, they thought, would give Hanks a chance to also flex his directing and writing muscles. (He would direct the premiere and co-write three separate episodes.)

What’s interesting about From the Earth to the Moon is how different it is from almost any miniseries that would be made today. Yes, certain actors recur as certain characters. But the series is, by and large, defined by how every episode focuses on the story of Apollo from a completely new perspective.

Take, for instance, the second hour (probably the best installment of the series), which is scripted by the wonderful TV writer Graham Yost and directed by longtime TV hand David Frankel. Its subject is putatively the Apollo 1 disaster, in which three astronauts burned to death in their capsule before the rocket had even launched.

But rather than portray this tragedy as a visceral, gory horror, Yost and Frankel look away from it, choosing to instead depict the government inquiry into what happened. It’s not a disaster movie; it’s a mystery. And by making that shift, events we might have already known about become fresh and new to us.

The notion of changing a story we already know by shifting perspective comes up again and again throughout the miniseries. One episode is told from the point of view of the astronauts’ wives (and directed by Sally Field!). Another retells the events of the near disaster of Apollo 13, but entirely from the point of view of ground control, as the scientists there try frantically to solve the problem.

The finale intersperses the story of Apollo 17 — to date the most recent mission to the moon — with the production of French director Georges Melies’s groundbreaking 1903 short film, A Trip to the Moon (a breakthrough in cinematic special effects and partially inspired by the Jules Verne novel From the Earth to the Moon, which also gave the HBO miniseries its title).

Some of these ideas work better than others — the stuff set in 1903 is a little precious — but the scope of From the Earth to the Moon is what I always come away with from the program once I’m done watching. Most miniseries would have focused entirely on the astronauts, on the missions, on the ground crew. This miniseries tries to be about all of that and as many other things as it can possibly think of. It could feel scattered, but it, instead, feels powerful and nuanced.

History is often presented to us in fictional narratives as one account of what happened. One of the great things about television is how it can complicate that narrative, branching out from the official story to tell others lurking around that story’s edges. From the Earth to the Moon doesn’t just bring Apollo to life; it brings a whole complicated world around the program to life, too. It’s a pity more miniseries haven’t tried to do the same for other major historical events.

From the Earth to the Moon will once again be available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now on July 15. You could also buy a DVD or Blu Ray of it if you really wanted to. Physical media! It won’t be randomly stripped from your favorite streaming site at a moment’s notice!

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