With the United States space program having been put on what seems to be a permanent backburner after a handful of high-profile disasters, it’s easy to forget how huge NASA and the prospect of space travel were in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Especially in a place like Houston, Texas, where NASA was so completely intertwined with local society. Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is a thoughtful, often wryly humorous reminiscence about what it was like to be a child growing up in a world that seemed at once filled with limitless possibilities for the future and crippling anxieties laced with existential dread. With the light, breezy narration of Jack Black, Apollo 10 ½ feels like a time capsule for a bygone era.
Stan (voiced by Black as an adult) is ten years old, the youngest son in a typical middle-class American family. His father works at NASA, although not in an exciting job, to his son’s perpetual disappointment – he’s in administration, far from the glamor of the astronauts. His oldest sister is the free-thinker of the family, the closest to embracing counterculture in their sheltered, monochromatic suburban world. The large, boisterous family orbit one another like satellites, part of a finely tuned system that arguably only would have worked with parenting styles considerably more hands-off than we often see in modern-day America.
There’s a space-related plotline, one with a tendency toward the abstract that stands in sharp contrast to the more grounded musings of Stan as the film’s narrator. One day at school, Stan is recruited by a pair of government employees who desperately need his help. NASA has accidentally built the lunar module too small, making it impossible for them to send a full-grown astronaut to the moon. That’s where Stan comes in: He will be trained to execute the entire mission in secret before any of the Apollo crew members attempt it themselves.
Although Stan’s mission features sporadically throughout Apollo 10 ½, that’s not really what the film is about. Obviously, there was no pint-sized NASA program shooting kids into space (that we know of, anyway). His experiences illustrate how much society, especially for kids growing up in Houston just a few miles from NASA headquarters, was emotionally invested in the space program. It becomes a cultural touchstone to such an extent that, as Stan’s mother remarks in the film, even if Stan fell asleep before Neil Armstrong actually walked on the moon, he would eventually believe that he saw it with his own two eyes.
Aside from this fairly thin framing story that links Stan to NASA, most Apollo 10 ½ is far more introspective. Jack Black narrates Stan’s reflections on his childhood, some undoubtedly ultra-specific to director Richard Linklater’s own upbringing, others comfortingly universal. Rather than adhering to a tightly constructed narrative, Apollo 10 ½ is a flowing, stream-of-consciousness collection of memories and ruminations.
Although it’s bathed in a nostalgic glow – Stan (and Linklater) clearly look back fondly on their collective childhood – it doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of life in the late 1960s. Instead, it seems eager to pause on some of its inherent contradictions. The idyllic suburban family life where the father also drinks and drives and the children are mere inches from death riding in the bed of a pickup truck. The relentless optimism and wonder of the space age contrasted with the doom-filled prognostications of the Cold War. Once more, Richard Linklater can tap into the complexities of childhood in suburbia, creating a visual narrative that capitalizes on the power of shared experiences rather than relying solely on cheap nostalgia.