Category Archives: Film

A New View of Apollo 8, NASA’s Perfect Mission

Apollo 8 in 1968 was NASA’s perfect Christmas Mission that at the time awed and moved the whole world. Our forthcoming movie “Mission Control: the Unsung Heroes of Apollo” gives a new perspective on the flight from the consoles in Houston, and shows that Apollo 8 was also an extraordinary example of bold and strong leadership and remarkable teamwork.

A New Movie

In the last two years I have had the privilege to be a producer on the upcoming new Haviland Digital movie Mission Control: the Unsung Heroes of Apollo, working with director David Fairhead and producer Gareth Dodds. We were inspired by Rick Houston, an expert in space history and the author of “Go Flight: The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control”. The film should be released around the spring of 2017.

The film is about a remarkable decade of achievement by the people who worked at consoles in Mission Control in Houston. The team members were born against a backdrop of economic turmoil and global conflict. Some came from a rural lifestyle little changed from the 19th century. Others grew up in a gritty, blue-collar America of mines and smoke stacks. They ranged from kids straight out of college to those toughened by military service. But from such ordinary beginnings, an extraordinary team was born.

They were setting out on what JFK called:

“The most hazardous, dangerous, and greatest adventure upon which mankind has ever embarked”.

Through their testimony – and the supporting voices of Apollo astronauts and modern NASA flight directors – the film takes us from the faltering start of the program through the Mercury and Gemini missions, the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire to the glories of the Moon landings.

In making the film, we had the immense privilege of spending time with these men, who had taken part in some of the greatest events of the twentieth century.

And for many, it will be a new viewpoint – a viewpoint of the space program from the ground, not the capsule.

Most of us, when thinking about that era, will come first to Apollo 11 – when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first humans to walk on the lunar service. But almost universally, for those in Mission Control, their favourite mission was not the moon landing – extraordinary as that was – but the first journey to orbit the moon: Apollo 8.

1968 – A Year of Challenges

1968 was a difficult year. In the world at large, it had started with the North Vietnamese launching the Tet offensive. It was also to be the year of the My Lai massacre. In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There were riots in Paris and Chicago, and a sense of revolution hung coldly in the air. In June, Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy, and in the autumn, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia.

It had also been a challenging period for NASA. In January of 1967, a fire had swept through the first Apollo capsule intended for space during a ground test. The fire was caused by a mix of bad wiring and a pure oxygen atmosphere. And because the escape hatch mechanism was clumsy, three astronauts lost their lives in horrible circumstances.

The pain of that event is still felt fifty years later. It was an avoidable and unexpected body blow for the Apollo program – one that could have easily proven fatal.

Flight Director Gene Kranz – famous for his core role in saving the Apollo 13 crew – had taken his team aside at that point and asked them to take and feel their own accountability, and then write on their blackboards the words tough and competent– a vow to do their best and strive for excellence, but also be willing to raise their hands when schedule and other pressures threatened a mission and its crew.

So, 1968 for NASA was a year of recovery and regrouping. And many – including Dr Chris Kraft, the creator of Mission Control – came to think that period of recovery proved to be necessary and essential. With the tragedy and without the cold and clear response from NASA in improving things, the moon landings may not have happened.

The main spacecraft was redesigned to a higher “Block II” standard. Flammable materials were eliminated from its interior. The hatch was made easy to open. The NASA leadership of the era passed the main test of real leadership: can you handle the bad times?

The first success of this new phase was Apollo 7, where a three-person crew tested the main spacecraft – the CSM or Command and Service Module. This flew without a real hitch in Earth orbit in October 1968.

It still wasn’t plain sailing. Apollo 6 – an uncrewed mission – had tested the mighty Saturn V rocket and it had turned out to be quite a ride. The launch was so violent that the rocket had “pogo-ed” , and any crew would have been injured or killed. The design was later changed so that helium gas was pumped into voids in the ducts leading to the F-1 engines to change the overall resonance characteristics of the vehicle. There were also issues that caused the premature shut-off of engines in the second stage, requiring another set of fixes.

And then the lunar module – the spidery and fragile craft that was meant to land on the Moon – was proving to be “a horrible piece of hardware.” It was not ready. There were too many defects to meet the schedule. It would take many weeks to fix.

And Apollo 8 was meant to test the lunar module in Earth orbit.

A Moment of Agility

The word agility is used a lot in modern business to describe approaches that can deliver results fast and handle change well. It’s a word that belongs to the 21st century.

But NASA in the 1960s remains an example of agility that still startles.

In the summer of 1968 and in a decision that would be remembered as an act of extraordinary vision and boldness, George Low, the Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, proposed that Apollo 8 be instead sent to orbit the moon without its Lunar Module.

The risks were extraordinary.

  • This would be the first manned flight using the mighty Saturn V – a rocket that had just had its severe issues with “pogo-ing” fixed but not tested. It was a bold step indeed to use its first crewed flight to travel almost a quarter million miles to the Moon.
  • Any trip to the Moon also required intense planning and training , and the discussions had started just a few weeks before the earth orbit Apollo 7 was scheduled to fly. It was a tough schedule to meet. Would it be even possible?

Glynn Lunney, a Flight Director and one of the most important figures in NASA Mission Control during the Apollo years summarized the thought process that would typify the response of NASA senior management:

  “I went in minutes from ‘crazy’ to ‘brilliant breakthrough’, and ‘why didn’t I think of that’?”

So, the mission imagined on almost the spur of the moment rapidly gained the support of almost all NASA’s senior managers. They understood the immense morale boost it would create, and they had confidence in their vehicles. Above all, the team that had formed out of Mercury, Gemini and the early days of the Apollo program had gained immense confidence in itself. This great challenge could be met. This mission was possible. It was a Go!

Training was started in September. No public announcement was made about the real intent of the mission until November 12, less than 40 days before launch. The news of the real goal of Apollo 8 stunned and exhilarated the public. American astronauts were going to the Moon … and at Christmas.

Even those in Mission Control were shocked. John Aaron – a key figure in many flights including Apollo 13 – would think:

You’re going to do what?”


On the morning of December 21, the Apollo 8 crew – Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders – was awakened in the small hours, and given a traditional breakfast of steak and eggs.

As for Mission Control, it would operate 24×7 in three shifts, led by Flight Directors Charles Charlesworth, Glynn Lunney and Milton Windler. The atmosphere in Mission Control was intense. As Jerry Bostick remarks in the film, every thing was checked and rechecked.

“This no simulation … was for real”.

The countdown proceeded smoothly and at 7:51 AM, the four hold-down arms were released and the Saturn V moved slowly into the air, driven by many millions of pounds of thrust. It did not shake as violently as Apollo 6 and the crew were safe.

Astronaut Michael Collins was the CAPCOM (Capsule Communications) on duty on the ground and at 2 hours, 27 minutes and 22 seconds in the mission radioed,

“Apollo 8. You are Go for TLI.”

TLI stands for “Trans-lunar Injection”. It gave permission to the spacecraft to leave low-Earth orbit. The engine on the third and final stage of the Saturn V fired again.

Apollo 8 was now the first manned interplanetary spacecraft. And the crew would find time to take the first pictures made by humans rather than robots of the whole planet Earth.

Reaching the Moon

As they approached the moon, the crew began to prepare for Lunar Orbit Insertion or LOI. This was a particularly tense moment. It depended on a burn of the service module engine on the far side of the Moon, when the spacecraft was alone and out of contact with Earth.

After the key members of Mission Control were polled for a “go” or “no go” decision, the crew was told that they were “go” and “riding the best bird we can find.”

Mission Control had set up two countdown clocks. If Apollo 8 regained contact at the first timing point, then no burn had happened and LOI had failed. If it regained contact at the second timing point, the burn had worked perfectly. Anything else was real trouble. The craft could be heading into solar orbit or towards impact on the lunar surface.

It was at this point that Lunney – who was the flight director on duty, said:

“Okay, all flight controllers, this is a good time to take a break.

It amazed the members of Mission Control at first, but on reflection there was nothing to be done for around 20 minutes. Some of them took advantage. Eventually, the first countdown clock expired. There was no signal. Tension in Mission Control increased. Then the second clock expired. Apollo 8 radioed at that exact point

“Houston, this is Apollo 8. Burn complete.”

The engine had performed as it should. Apollo 8 was in orbit around the moon.

In Orbit

It was then that the crew could start observing another world – one of the prime purposes of the mission, and essential preparation for future landings. They would take many hundreds of photos. Jim Lovell would characterize the surface as:

“The Moon is essentially grey, no colour; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a greyish beach sand. “

Bill Anders would add:

“Looks like a sand pile my kids have been playing in for a long time—it’s all beat up—no definition—just a lot of bumps and holes.”

These were the words of pilots and engineers. Plain, without romance. But poetry was coming.

The Genesis Reading

As Apollo 8, rounded Moon for the ninth time, they began another TV transmission. They first described the lunar surface for the people on Earth, Borman characterizing it as a “a vast, lonely, forbidding expanse of nothing.”

Then Anders said crew had a message for all on Earth. It was at that moment that each of the astronauts read a section from Genesis, about the creation of the Heaven and the Earth. It had been selected as a part of the bible with resonance across multiple religions.

“In the Beginning god created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void. And darkness was upon the face of the Deep. . . . And God saw that it was Good. . . . “

Borman ended the broadcast with:

“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”

This was a hugely moving and unexpected experience for those in Mission Control. Flight controller Jerry Bostick later wrote:

“I was totally overwhelmed, and tears came to my eyes. [What could be] more appropriate than a Bible reading about creation, coming from the first people to ever leave the influence of Earth, on Christmas Eve?”

Returning Home

The next critical moment was Trans-Earth Injection, or TEI. The service module engine needed to be restarted a second time, and perform another perfect burn. Again, that would be done behind the moon.

It worked, and Lovell reported:

  “Houston … please be informed, there is a Santa Claus.”

After the long coast back to Earth, the Apollo 8 Command module re-entered the atmosphere with the fire and dreadful violence that comes from interplanetary velocities. The deceleration peaked at around 6g, as the spacecraft met the resistance of Earth’s atmosphere.

Anders would say:

“You could see the flames and the outer skin of the spacecraft glowing; and burning, baseball-size chunks flying off behind us. It was an eerie feeling, like being a gnat inside a blowtorch flame.”

At around 10,000 feet the three main parachutes slowed the Command Module, and it splashed down south of Hawaii.

Apollo 8 – In Retrospect

In the end, Apollo 8 was a genuine and complete success. It was indeed a perfect mission. Jerry Bostick would say: “It was bold, it was exciting, and it was successful.”

 Chris Kraft – who created the very notion of Mission Control – notes in his autobiography how many historic firsts it scored. It was the:

  • First manned flight of a Saturn V
  • First manned vehicle to leave earth’s gravitation field
  • First use of a computer to provide total “onboard autonomy” in navigation
  • First manned vehicle in lunar orbit
  • First close-up view of another planet
  • First exposure to solar radiation beyond the earth’s magnetic field
  • First vehicle to rocket out of lunar orbit
  • First manned vehicle to re-enter from another planet

Perhaps the impact of the Mission is best summarized by a telegram sent to Borman by an unknown citizen that stated:

“Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”

Apollo 8 as an Example of Leadership

Apollo 8 of course is also extraordinary example of bold and strong leadership and remarkable teamwork.

Coming less than two years after the Apollo 1 fire which could have halted the program, it represents true both organisational resilience and the genuine acceptance of accountability. NASA were truly “tough and competent”.

It demonstrates adaptability, creativity and agility. Apollo 8 was meant to be an Earth orbit mission. The bold and courageous mission that replaced that original intent probably shortened the path to the Moon. It was a decision made quickly and decisively.

It demonstrates the high performing team at the heart of NASA and Mission Control – who were able to create a new and complex mission plan for humanity’s first mission to another world in a matter of weeks.

Apollo 8 was also a remarkable moment in communications, in PR and marketing. At the end of a deeply troubled year, its success bound together humanity for a moment.

In summary, Apollo 8 is a perfect example of the power of vision and imagination, followed by perfect execution.

And it happened at Christmas.

Keith Haviland

This article is an extended version of an article first published in 2014. Many thanks for David Woods for insight into the Apollo 6 launch.

Keith Haviland is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network. He is also a film producer and CEO of Haviland Digital – dedicated to intelligent film, TV and Digital Media.

Whiplash: outrageously dramatic, redemptive and enthusiastic

I had the privilege of seeing Whiplash at the BFI’s London Film Festival last October. (It was shown at the Accenture gala, renowned for the quality of its films choices). Directed by Damien Chazelle, the film is now on general release in the UK. It is a film with an extraordinary reputation – a reputation that turns out to be completely deserved. Indeed, Whiplash generated a rare standing ovation during the London festival in the vast cathedral space of the Leicester Square Odeon.

The movie is a mash-up of film genres that takes the audience on an emotional and stretching journey. The ending in particular is outrageously redemptive and enthusiastic, revolving around a confrontation between the main characters described purely through musical performance.

The story starts with 19-year old Andrew Neiman (played with a smouldering monomania by Miles Teller). Neiman is a young drummer who wins a place at the Shaffer Conservatory, a major music academy in New York. His ambition is to become one of the “greats” in jazz drumming, Buddy Rich being the example used in the film. Indeed, the film’s name comes from a complex jazz classics, which used in a key musical sequence.

Neiman soon encounters a legendary conductor and teacher called Terence Fletcher. In conventional terms, Fletcher is the villain of the film, although he retains a certain brute-force charm throughout. He is played with psychopathic, wiry and wild-eyed perfection by JK Simmons. Fletcher starts by projecting that charm, initially with elegance, but he turns out to be a talented, inspiring and abusive monster who humiliates the young people in his band, delivering badass and disturbingly funny insults with real gusto. There are hints of a prior student having committed suicide under pressure. The engine of the plot is the tension that develops between Neiman and Fletcher.

With this premise the film moves far away from the cinematic conventions around music or pupil-teacher relationships. It adds dramatic and stylistic conventions from film noir, the tensest of legal dramas, crime thrillers and war movies. It is delightfully old-fashioned in its melodramatic tone.

As a result, the film itself becomes a master class in technique and performance from the ensemble of director, film crew and actors. It is an extended riff on film conventions that is aimed to dazzle. Variety’s reviewer Peter Debruge wrote that the film “demolishes the clichés of the musical-prodigy genre, investing the traditionally polite stages and rehearsal studios of a topnotch conservatory with all the psychological intensity of a battlefield or sports arena.” Close your eyes and you know it should seem ludicrous – life is not this dramatic. But open them and you enter a bargain with the director and actors with little hesitation. This is a story that demands to be followed.

As the film develops, Neiman is inspired – almost demonically possessed – by Fletcher and spends every waking moment rehearsing and practicising, until there is blood on his hands. He looses his girl friend, and brutally competes with other drummers in Fletcher’s orbit.

Without revealing too much of the plot, the two fall out and Fletcher dismisses Neiman, before his own troubles with the academy over the intensity of his abusive style. But somehow the plot engineers a reunion at a major concert, which turns out to be a ploy to humiliate Neiman. However,  Neiman grits metaphorical teeth, and proves himself in a performance of the jazz classic caravan, perfectly assembled via images related to the music, and shots of the faces of the actors. Somehow, with no dialogue whatsoever, the film resolves the tension between the two protagonists. It is easy to applaud.

The film itself possesses an inspiring history of hard effort and perseverance. The original script was featured in the 2012 “Black List” of the best motion picture screenplays that have not yet been produced. Chazelle then turned 15 pages of the screenplay into a short film that was noticed, then acclaimed at the Sundance festival in 2013. The full film was made finally for a small budget of just over $3 million. It has won and been nominated for a dazzling array of awards.

The bottom line is this. Whiplash is a wonderful piece of film making that moves and inspires the audience. It should be in the top five of films to see this year for any true cinema buff. And you will leave the cinema uplifted. Enjoy.

Interstellar Review: A Brave, Imperfect, Beautiful and Exciting Movie

**Warning: mild-spoilers ahead **

What to make of Christopher Nolan’s new Science Fiction epic Interstellar?

This is a film that has been eagerly anticipated, and whose trailers have been filled with strong space imagery, and a sense of mythic grandeur and aspiration. There is, in my view, an intense and general desire for intelligent science fiction beyond the superhero format, and many hoped that Interstellar would provide just that. It has both an A-list director, and an A-list cast of Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, John Lithglow and Matt Damon. (The idea of Michael Caine running NASA is almost worth the price of an entry ticket in itself.)

However, some of the science reaction has already been negative, and the science indeed creaks at times. At a few moments in the film, there is too much artificial technical explanation, rather like some episodes of Star Trek. As Kubrick showed in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, much admired by Nolan, less is more – especially when events are caused by the gift of advanced alien technology.

There are some moments that are simply inexplicable – such as when the wall of a board style meeting room lifts and reveals a rocket launch pad feet away, and shouts film-set.  It also takes a two-stage rocket launcher to get one of the film’s shuttlecraft into Earth orbit, but the same type of craft is able to lift off by itself from a planet of 1.3g. The distant solar system that they reach through a wormhole is clearly exotic, but unclear – I suspect there was a design for the system that was not explained in the final version of the script. There is a black hole there, a neutron star is mentioned in passing, and the presumably stellar source of light and heat for the planets is not mentioned. The real gravitational and tidal effects of a black hole are understated. The renowned scientist and science writer Phil Plait wrote a very good review (see here) that reveals this class of defect in fine detail, although as we shall see I reach very different conclusions about the movie.

And the plot and characterization sometimes creak as well.  The film tries to be grand and laden with meaning at many levels – which negative reviewers find pompous. There is a section with Matt Damon as a rogue and cowardly astronaut that for me doesn’t sufficiently suspend disbelief at the human level, even before we think about the science, to really work. Would a man alone for a decade turn on his rescuers so quickly? This is ultimately an issue with this part of the script, rather than the actors who generally do well.

But, although the film is flawed enough that I came close to losing my hope and belief at one point, at the closing credits I felt that I had seen an imaginative, rich and ultimately terrific movie – especially since the last third is a strong spectacle, and a good piece of story telling. The film moves through new ideas at a blistering pace, and ideas that range across a very broad spectrum of cinematic technical excellence, visual appeal, science and story telling. It finishes dramatically, grandly and – it must be said – sentimentally. It bravely plays with concepts related to black holes, relativity and gravity – event horizons, time dilation, singularities, and accretion disks are not common features in big movies. Although it does this in a ramshackle manner, Chris Nolan and team deserve a loud round of applause for trying such ideas in a large-scale film project.

Visually the film is superb and creates a vocabulary for representing space and space flight that both convinces and pays homage to past glories of spaceflight and Science Fiction film. There are scenes that are based on the Apollo era Saturn V launch footage, and the staging footage recovered from film canisters held inside those great rockets of the Moon Age. There are flight sequences reminiscent of real film of the Virgin Galactic spacecraft. There is an excellent, somewhat theatrical representation of time travel that echoes the weightless scene in 2001 A Space Odyssey where HAL is turned off. 2001 is also directly quoted in scenes where an interior and noisy point of view shifts to a silent exterior view of the film’s space hardware, echoing the quite grace and balletic pace of Kubrick’s masterpiece. And it is visually quoted again in the journey through the wormhole – very like the last “Beyond the Infinite” section of 2001 – and the recreation of a black hole that is lit by the brilliance of its accretion disk.

Before that, however, the film starts on Terra Firma with the conjuring of a troubled future world, and a troubled America, through the recreation of an idealized Eisenhower era – like the worlds glimpsed in Astronaut Farmer or Field of Dreams. This is a place of strange dust storms and dying plants. It is also a place of infinite cornfields, a wooden family farmhouse and baseball.

It is where we learn about the character of the hero Cooper (played well by Matthew McConaughey) – a feisty, tough, independent ex-astronaut now turned corn-farmer who “was born 40 years too late, or 40 years too early” in a community that sees itself as “the caretaker generation.” This part of the film establishes his relationship with his daughter Murphy, a relationship that will span more than a century of Earth time and links the various elements of the film. This primary arc reminded me – since it is in the end redemptive, strongly sentimental, and plays with love, time and outcomes – of a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s a film I adore, so I have to admit I enjoyed the main Interstellar arc, and its inevitable uplifting ending, immensely.

The centre of the film consists of a tour of wonderfully imagined – and often scientifically dubious – strange worlds that is similar to the kind of planetary treks found in 1950s pulp science fiction. I was reminded of early works by Robert Heinlein, and James Blish. There is even a robot with a human-like personality, and a strong, tunable sense of irony. The special effects create a strong feeling of reality, and these alien worlds are very believable, even when you find yourself questioning the science.

Interstellar ends with a long and genuinely gripping sequence that is fast paced and intensely dramatic as astronaut Cooper first docks with a damaged and rapidly spinning spacecraft, and stabilizes it – a sequence possibly influenced by Neil Armstrong’s success in stopping a rotating capsule on Gemini 8. Cooper’s craft then falls into a black hole, and Cooper is placed in a kind of time tunnel by unseen and distant descendents of humanity, which becomes the device that facilitates the dénouement of the movie. Strangely enough, although this is one of the most fantastical parts of the film, it works well. The ability to influence the past is presented as a that momentary gift, a mystery created by superior intelligences, rather the alien monoliths in 2001.

In summary, Interstellar is a brave, not always successful, attempt to create a thrilling science fiction epic with greater intelligence than most. It is a beautiful movie. It brims full with images culled from fifty years of actual space flight and other Science Fiction movies that are integrated into a convincing and inspiring vision. It also bubbles over with ideas and concepts that sometimes work well, and sometimes stumble. It is an inspiring, exciting, beautiful and imperfect film that I would strongly recommend seeing, with something of an open heart.

Interstellar also represents something of the current zeitgeist – where science and technology are more valued, and some people are rediscovering the wonder of space flight. There is unsatisfied demand for intelligent science fiction, and films that genuinely take us to new places in the grandest sense. Hopefully, Interstellar will encourage others to raise their eyes to the skies above.

Keith Haviland is a business and technology leader, with a special focus on how to combine big vision and practical execution at the very largest scale, and how new technologies will reshape tech services.
He is a Former Partner and Global Senior Managing Director at Accenture, and founder of Accenture’s Global Delivery Network.
 Published author and active film producer, including Last Man on the Moon. Advisor/investor for web and cloud-based start-ups.

Steam, War Computers and Social Media: Representing Technology in Film

The London Film Festival is currently on – running from 8th to 17th October across 17 venues, showing over 250 films. As always, it offers an extraordinarily rich program from filmmakers across the world, in a city that has now firmly become one of the movie capitals of the world.

Film, of course, is now a truly digital business. In the last few years, digital cinema cameras like the Arri Alexa have made physical rolls of films essentially redundant, and give very high-definition results of great quality. Production activities like data wrangling and conforming are tasks centred on managing video data that will seem very familiar to anyone who has dealt with configuration management on a software project. And when films are shown in a modern cinema, they will be stored as a Digital Cinema Package or DCP – a standardised collection of digital files. Everywhere there is also experimentation with digital distribution, the art of getting content to consumers in different ways on different devices, and the web’s video services have unleashed a vast wave of low-cost creativity. Technology is transforming filmmaking.

The London Film Festival itself exploits modern technology, including live streaming of its red carpet galas to cinemas across the country and use of its own BFI player for festival related content. London overall is a place where technical skills abound in the new digital crafts around post-production, special effects and 3D.

But this article is not about the digital revolution in the making of film; it is about how technology is increasingly part of the dramatic content of film, and how technology and especially digital technology is represented. The examples are – naturally enough – drawn from the London Film Festival.

The inspiration for the article was accidental. I had booked each film I wanted to see for the normal reasons – I liked the look of the film, or respected the filmmakers, or was interested in the buzz surrounding the movie. But, as I watched each of them – usually somewhere in Leicester Square – I was struck by how often technology intruded, and how often directors tried to find ways of representing technology in general, and specifically n the digital world, on screen.

Mr. Turner

Let’s start in an unlikely place with Mr. Turner. It is a marvellous film, from director Mike Leigh. It is a biography of perhaps the greatest English painter JMW Turner (1775 to 1851) who was known as “the painter of light” and who anticipated both Impressionism and modern Abstract Art.

Set in the first half of the 19th Century, it succeeds at recreating the period with a sense of truth that is unusually powerful – through its authentic and sometimes very funny dialogue, its recreation of the manners and moral temper of the period, and its careful choice of locations.

It shows off Turner’s art of course – and is visually rich and sometimes stunning – but the film also brings to life the man himself: a successful, eccentric and harrumphing curmudgeon born outside the establishment, who then became very much part of it. Turner is vividly played by Timothy Spall, with ungainly confidence and much humour.

But one of the most unexpected parts of the film for me was the way it shows an older Turner experiencing changes in 19th century society, and especially the impact of technology. Mike Leigh successfully conveys a deep sense of the move from the Georgian to the truly industrial Victorian era.

Examples: the means of passage from London to Margate changes from steamer to train during the film. There is a wonderful, funny sequence where Turner and his mistress are photographed by an American master of this new technology. He is armed with the latest cameras and equipment, including a head brace to help with long exposures. During this process, Turner ponders on the future effects on art.

And in one of the grandest sequences of the film, Turner and a group of friends watch the tall-masted and exhausted warship The Fighting Temeraire being towed to its break-up by a steam tug. This was to inspire what is one of the most famous, reproduced and loved paintings by a British artist.

During the scene, one of Turner’s companions looks at the great tall ship and remarks melancholically: “The ghost of the past.”

Turner prefers instead to observe the blackened, low shape of the steam tug: “No,” he shouts back, “The past is the past. You’re observing the future! Smoke. Iron. Steam!”

This presentation of technology, as a set of dynamic changes and images seen through the curious eyes of an artist is highly effective. The film ends up being as much a biography of the early Victorian age – a age of steam, coal, industry and transformation, with the young Albert and Victoria putting in an appearance themselves – as it is a biography of Turner.

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game moves us directly into the first days of the digital era. Indeed a key moment of the film, set during World War II, is when Keira Knightly pronounces the phrase “digital computer” awkwardly, as though it is being said in the world for the very first time.

The film is a biographic study of Alan Turing, played with suitable coldness and fragility by Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing was a taut, difficult personality often backwards diagnosed as autistic. He was a mathematician, cryptologist, and one of the first computer scientists, introducing many key foundations of that discipline. The name of the film itself is taken from one of Turing’s papers where he develops the concept of the Turing Test. This is a test for whether machines can ever think, and whether they could ever imitate a human mind.

It is a brilliant choice of title, since the film is about deceit at many levels – including the original Enigma codes, the hiding of the success of Allied code-breaking and the passing of false information to the Russians. Above all, there is the hidden nature of Turing’s own sexuality in a time when male homosexuality was a criminal offence.

The bulk of the film’s plot – with quite a lot of dramatic simplification- is centred on the breaking of the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park. The resulting intelligence was labelled Ultra (from Ultra Secret), and Churchill would later tell King George VI: “It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war.” The film itself repeats the common suggestion that ultra shaved two full years of the war.

In the film, the core of this process is a computer-like device – a bombe in the terminology of the time – that eventually is successfully programmed to break German encrypted messages on a daily basis. Turing’s efforts to design, build and operate the machine, and manage the team around it, occupies much of the story.

The visual and dramatic vocabulary that the film uses to describe its technology is taken straight from 1950s Science Fiction. In some ways, this is a perfect choice, since the 1940s wartime acceleration of technology would influence the world-view of the 1950s. So, we have common archetypes such as:

  • The central character of a lonely, arrogant boffin, dressed in tweed, who has a mission to save the world. Indeed, Turing is warned several times in the film to avoid thinking of himself as God.
  • Plain speaking, slight dim military men who’s job seems to be to place obstacles in the way of the hero
  • Sudden moments of inspiration where a chance remark opens the door to the instant resolution of a complex problem.
  • Diagrams and mathematical text assembled in great linked masses showing the workings of another “Beautiful Mind”
  • The great machine itself, a clunking mass of cylinders and valves that rotate remorselessly – like a vision of a Babbage difference engine. It reminded me of the whirl of mechanical computation machines in the classic “When Worlds Collide”.

The vision of technology here is cold, hard-edged and relentless – similar to Turing himself. Overall, the film succeeds – it is a good,moving and watchable piece of work, with strong performances throughout, but perhaps the plot works itself a little too mechanically, simulating the code-breaking machine at its heart.

Men, Women and Children

This film – by Jason Reitman and starring Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner and a large ensemble cast – is completely contemporary. It is about the lives of middle-class Americans, and how modern motivations and complexities are wired together by personal and social technology. It is based on an original novel by the controversial author Chad Kultgen.

Technology is represented in two ways. Firstly, there is a sequence of digital special effect sequences of the Voyager missions to the outer solar system, narrated by Emma Thompson. The connecting link between these sequences and the rest of the film is through the use of words – at the very end of the film – that Carl Sagan wrote about the “Pale Blue Dot” photo. This famous image was taken by one of the Voyager probes of the distant Earth as a final act of observation. The sequences are beautiful, and the narration sometimes very funny, but this part of the film feels a little contrived and unnecessary.

 The second representation of technology – of websites and social media – is much more relevant and direct. This is not achieved through conventional shots of a PC or smartphone screen, but via pop-up windows on screen that represent what is being shown on a device. These appear beside the main antagonists in the film, popping in and out of existence like speech or thought bubbles. This is effective, and helps the narrative flow. It soon seems strangely natural. It is also provides opportunities for real humour, when people text what they really thinking of the person they are talking to.  

The themes covered are those social issues generated or amplified by technology. One example plotline: the character Tim Mooney (played by Ansel Elgort) is a schoolboy football player of real talent. But he quits the sport – to the vast disapproval of his father Kent (Dean Norris) – to obsessively play online games. He also learns of his absent mother’s new marriage via Facebook. Increasingly alienated, he finds solace in a relationship with intellectual, book-reading teenager Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever).

Her mother Patrica (played with steel by Jennifer Garner) is one of the strongest characters in the film. Her obsession is the Internet life of her daughter, which she monitors, restricts and controls with total authority before she finds out that her daughter has a secret and rebellious alternative web identity. This sets up a near tragic incident, where Patrica impersonates her daughter to persuade Tom that their relationship is over. As a consequence, Tom takes an overdose that he barely survives.

Another examples of the film’s threads include a teenager so corrupted by pornography he cannot form a normal relationship, a married couple who organise parallel infidelities via websites, a teenager who damages her life chances by putting too racy images on the web, and another – borderline anorexic – who gets advice on extreme dieting from virtual friends on the web.

There is much humour, especially at the beginning, but in the end the film takes a grim view of humanity. However, the representation of the technology works well, and allows parallel threads of plot and meaning to be shown on screen. It is a successful recreation of people’s abstract virtual lives.

Dearest and Rosewater

Both these films are reconstructions of real stories, where technology is part of the story, but not the prime driver. Both were – for me – unexpectedly moving, and illuminated very different cultures.

“Dearest” is a Chinese film, directed by Peter Chan, which covers the sensitive subject of child abduction in China. Although fictionalizsed, it is based on a true story that Chan came across in a TV documentary. It is well acted, humane and gives real insight into the social world of modern China.

Tian Wenjun (Huang Bo) and his ex-wife Lu Xiaojuan (Hao Lei) lose their child PengPeng through abduction. They spend three years searching – using the web as a means of communicating across the vastness of China, and connecting with others in their situation. Eventually, they locate their son in a remote village. The film then – remarkably and successfully – switches its point of view entirely to the heartbroken woman Li Hongqin (Zhao Wei) who has been looking after the abducted child.

In Dearest, the technology dimension is treated entirely conventionally, with the focus always on the actors. It is well made, and a delightful film, but rooted in traditional filmmaking.

“Rosewater” is the story of London-based journalist Maziar Bahari (played by Gael García Bernal) who was detained in Iran for 100 days, while his British and pregnant girlfriend waited for him in London. It was written and directed by Jon Stewart, who was connected with the case.

The film starts with Bahari getting increasingly involved in the events around the Iranian presidential elections, and their violent aftermath. He is arrested and spends four months in solitary at Evin Prison, being interrogated by a “specialist”. Since he is blind-folded, his experience of the interrogator is through the scent of rosewater that surrounds him.

Technology threads itself through the film in two ways. It is shown as one of the motors of change in Iran, with the opposition fluent in use of the web and internet. TV news has also connected Iranian youth to the wider world. At one point, Bahari is introduced to a “university” that is simply a vast array of satellite dishes, hidden from the security forces. The last scene in the film is of a small boy filming the destruction of the nest of dishes by police. He is using a smart phone.

There is also a sequence that starts with Bahari in the depths of despair. He is convinced that the world has forgotten entirely about him. He has been told that his girl-friend has not contacted the Iranian authorities. But then a security guard mentions that Hilary Clinton has been talking about him. In that instance, he realises he absolutely has not been forgotten, and he is actually famous and the subject of much outside debate. That awakening is captured in the use of an animation sequence that shows information and keywords spreading around the world. It is out of kilter with the naturalistic feel of the rest of the film, and reminded me of the use of maps to show travel and the passing of time in films from the 40s and 50s. But it is effective, and a compact means of making the point.


Technology, and a sense of technical change and opportunity is everywhere in society, and everywhere in the world. That is influencing the mirror of film – only one of the films above was directly about the use of technology, but technology pervades all of them. This presents filmmakers with a challenge – especially when the technology is digital. How we represent the drama and rhythm of lives that are part virtual becomes an interesting and essential question. Soon I suspect someone will make a breakthrough film which tackles and answers that question head-on.

I look forward to it