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Fly Me to the Moon Is a Lighthearted Conspiracy Romp. But It Speaks to a Spiritual Sickness

7 minute read

NASA made good use of the safe within a safe. The outer safe was where the space agency kept archival material, classified documents, and other papers not intended for public disclosure. The inner safe was where they kept the materials not intended even for people within NASA. It was there the Apollo 1 tape was stored—the voices from the spacecraft cockpit when astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died in a launch pad fire on Jan. 27, 1967.

Virtually no one ever heard the Apollo 1 tape until NASA at last lifted the classification as part of a broad release of Apollo-era recordings in 2018, and the recording found its way to the Internet. It is barely 20 seconds long, but once heard, the sounds from the spacecraft—White shouting, “Hey, we’ve got a fire in the cockpit!”; Chaffee emitting a raw and awful death cry—can never be unheard. The recording is deeply primal, deeply personal, and never should have been declassified.

It is to the credit of the movie Fly Me to the Moon, a new comedy starring Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum about faking the Apollo 11 moon landing, that it opens with the fire and, in effect, a tribute to the lost astronauts. It is to the movie’s supreme discredit that it uses the actual recording—not once, but twice—violating the lost men’s privacy in the service of a Hollywood confection.

The filmmakers behind Fly Me to the Moon, which was directed by TV super-producer Greg Berlanti, surely pride themselves on having done their homework in both big and small ways—with the authenticity of the tape being just one example. Multiple scenes in the movie take place at Wolfie’s restaurant and the Holiday Inn Cocoa Beach, both of which were Cape Canaveral landmarks in the early days of the space program. The average age of the engineers in Mission Control is put at 26, which is exactly what it was. When the three Apollo 11 astronauts are being led to the van that will take them to the launch pad, two of them—the two who will walk on the moon—are seen with a large gray rectangle on the back of their spacesuits, where their life-support backpacks will attach, while the third astronaut’s suit is all white. Overlooking such a fine detail would surely not be noticed by most people but would immediately give away the game to space fans and historians.

But then there is the movie’s storyline. The longstanding conspiratorial fever-dream about the moon landings being faked was based on the narrative that by 1969, NASA knew it could not make President John F. Kennedy’s end-of-the-decade deadline for having American astronauts on the lunar surface, so the celebrated first moon walk was actually shot on a sound stage. Some of the accounts have an anonymous director helming the fakery; some have Stanley Kubrick, because, um, something about 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is this narrative—sans Kubrick—that Fly Me to the Moon offers up, with Johansson as an advertising executive who is behind the fraud, Tatum as a straight-arrow flight director who at first is duped by the ruse, and Woody Harrelson as a James McCord-like functionary in the Nixon administration who presses Johansson into service.

The story moves along lightly enough. The sound stage is rendered convincingly; the mock-up of the lunar module is gorgeously authentic-looking; and the cables under which the actors-astronauts bounce to simulate the moon’s one-sixth gravity indeed give them the kangaroo-hop that was the signature gait of the actual moon walkers. When the cables tangle and the astronauts wind up suspended in mid-air, the (real) movie earns an out-loud laugh as the exasperated (fake movie) director commands, “Let them hang there and think about what they did.”

But all of this happens in the service of what, exactly? In one very telling moment, Tatum's character learns the truth about the cosmic counterfeiting and warns Johansson's character that if word gets out, everything positive NASA has done will be doubted, all of the good will it has built up will be destroyed. The line-reading is set in 1969, but the loss of faith in public institutions is very much of a piece with 2024.

Former President Donald Trump has made it part of his campaign currency to cast doubt on the integrity of the FBI, the Department of Justice, the CDC, NATO, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and virtually all of his political opponents. Trump, however, is merely the ne-plus-ultra of a long decline in national trust. When the moon landings were unfolding, the U.S. military was considered deeply suspect due to the depredations of the Vietnam War. The entire executive branch faced disgrace shortly afterward as Watergate unspooled. Those messes were followed by Iran-Contra, the Clinton impeachment, the faux claim of weapons of mass destruction that led to the Iraq war, and the collapse of financial markets due to the wholesale fraud that was mortgage-backed securities.

And that wasn’t all. Politicians lied about the affordable care act (death panels!), about President Obama (born in Kenya!), about the 2020 election (stolen!). Sports was beset by cheating—juicing and alleged juicing by Lance Armstrong, Bobby Bonds, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire; sign-stealing by the Houston Astros; Tom Brady and his deflated footballs. Congress—once-august—has descended into cat-calling chaos, with presidents being heckled during State of the Union addresses, both parties retreating to their extremist corners, and the likes of Anthony Weiner and George Santos leaving in disgrace.

All of this is fresh soil for deep cynicism. Conspiracy theories have always been with us—people have been litigating the Kennedy assassination for 61 years. Flat-Earthers precede JFK by centuries. But recent generations—with climate change denialism, anti-vax nonsense, and 9/11 lies—have only seen things grow worse as social media serves as an accelerant for divisive, wholly un-fact-checked nonsense. Into this mix comes Fly Me to the Moon. Yes, it is too much to say that a simple work of popular entertainment will lead to an even greater decline in our belief in public institutions in general and NASA in particular.

“Media tends to reflect more than cause attitudes,” says Joseph Parent, professor of political science at Notre Dame University and co-author of the book American Conspiracy Theories. “In our book, we checked for causal relations between popular presentations of conspiracy theories and the prevalence of conspiracy theories. Nothing doing. I'm sure somebody somewhere was influenced, but it didn't move the needle generally.”

If Parent is right, Fly Me to the Moon is more symptom than source of our growing doubt in our institutions. The movie can be seen as the light diversion that it is—and it’s surely entertaining enough—but also as one more sign of our cultural fever, our infection with the bug of public mistrust. NASA, it could be argued, deserves this kind of treatment less than almost any part of the culture. For 66 years now, the space agency has achieved sublime things—robots on Mars, boots on the moon, spacecraft slaloming through the rings and moons of the outer planets. NASA and America have paid a terrible price too—Grissom, White, Chaffee, the Challenger crew, the Columbia crew. The deaths were real, the triumphs are real, the nine crewed lunar trips manifestly were real. 
Fly Me to the Moon can have its fun. But it’s fun that comes at a spiritual price.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com