Director: David Sington, Heather Walsh
Starring: Myrtle Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Wally Funk
Runtime: 79 Minutes
Mercury 13 refers to thirteen American women who, as part of a privately funded program in the 1950s, underwent some of the same physiological screening tests as the astronauts selected by NASA for Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight programme for the United States. Why have you likely never heard of them? Well, history tells us rather sadly why.
Although only a handful of the surviving members of the selected group appear in this documentary account of events, their story of soaring aspirations and dreams of touching the stars were tragically dashed by the indisputable restraint placed on them at the time; their gender.
Although tested to the best of their abilities with sterling results equal to or better than those found in their male counterparts, NASA refused to extend the project into their own work, with further limits placed on them by the US government led by President Johnson. It proved to be a missed opportunity, as Russia ended up accomplishing the feat in 1963 and swaying the attention of the world temporarily from the US.
The decision to send who are referred too as the “cookie cutter males” were all white men of similar backgrounds and personality in the media, this was the safest and surest bet and they were going to ride it to the end. It never questions the ability of these great men who accomplished such tasks, but does aim its sights at the institutions that maligned the efforts of those of different genders and races, as did last year’s historical drama Hidden Figures.
When the film is at its best, it’s digging into the fascinating backstories of these women, their ordeal, and their legal battle with Congress to overturn their decisions. The archive footage shown – although limited – is interesting to watch as areal views of women piloting aircraft are contrasted with the newsreel footage and interviews of the time seeking to reduce them to novel affairs. In one instance, famous aviator Jacqueline Cochran is questioned about her makeup and wealthy husband with insidiously scrutiny to undermine her actions, as she and others like her knock back their attempts with ease and confidence.
Where the film doesn’t work so much is in it’s aspirational “what if” narrative digressions, where Armstrong’s first steps on the moon are overlaid with female vocals and ponders on the long-lasting impact such an event might have spurred on into the present. Directed by David Sington (who also made the terrific In the Shadow of the Moon documentary a decade ago) and Heather Walsh, you can very much tell that this was produced in mind with a climax that would coalesce with Clinton’s 2016 presidential win, but (once again) history was against the tide of progress for a majority.
What it does replace it with is a deeply sincere and calmer reference point with the wonderful Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle in 1995, inviting the 13 women to her launch. Whereupon they are applauded with rapturous enthusiasm and gratitude by the crowds and Collins herself. It’s these touching closing moments that leave it on an emotional high.
This doesn’t provide all the answers it needs to be wholly successful as an exploration, with significant questions of motivation left single-mindedly unanswered and a brief runtime. But it does expose this story and these emergent figures to a wider audience with affection and power in small doses.