Rory Kennedy is no stranger to retrospectives. Her Academy Award-nominated doc, Last Days of Vietnam explored the chaotic final weeks of the Vietnam War, while Ethel provided an insider’s perspective on a political dynasty, documenting the work of Ethel Kennedy following the passing of her husband, Robert.
Her latest project, Above & Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow, also reflects on an organization whose achievements have made for significant moments in American history. But while the doc is tied to NASA’s 60th anniversary, Kennedy (pictured) notes that the project is not simply a historical piece.
“I narrate the film, so it’s more of a personal essay, which allows me and thereby the viewer to jump around some of the extraordinary highlights of NASA, diving deep into some and staying on the surface of others…. We move around in a pretty efficient way,” Kennedy tells realscreen in Cannes.
Along with recognizing highlights from NASA’s history, Above & Beyond, which will air on Discovery in June 2018, aims to shine a spotlight on the role the organization will play in the coming decades.
According to John Hoffman, EVP of documentaries and specials with Discovery, the network has a long history of working with NASA. Its efforts and research are in line with the interests of Discovery’s audience — viewers drawn to adventure and exploration. Discovery’s efforts to celebrate NASA’s 50th anniversary were “very focused on history and accomplishments,” says Hoffman. This time around, he says Kennedy’s film will “leave you with a sense of awe about how much research is currently going on. The scope of the organization’s investigations is overwhelming.”
As part of the doc, Kennedy tracked new technologies such as space telescopes and Mars-bound spacecrafts. But beyond that, she hopes to reinforce the message that Earth is a vulnerable planet, and NASA’s research will be essential to its survival.
Serious topics associated with environmentalism and conservationism have been more deeply explored by Discovery recently. Last year, the network aired Racing Extinction, which featured a deep dive into environmental threats, and Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, which follows the conservation movement in the U.S, had its television debut in August.
Hoffman says this is part of an increased fascination the Discovery audience has with awareness and of understanding our place in the universe.
“We’re reminded in different ways of how small we are and how vast the universe is,” he says. “Our ability to really ponder those questions is becoming more and more complex.”
Tackling a doc that aims to address these big questions while showcasing highlights from 60 years in a snapshot isn’t without its challenges. Kennedy says she had to sift through a “huge amount” of archive footage.
Fortunately, because NASA is a civilian agency rather than a military or government agency, its mission is to share knowledge, she says. Therefore, all the images that NASA creates are for public consumption, and were readily available for production.
“My job on this film has been as somewhat of a curator,” says Kennedy. “I pull out both the best stories but also the best images to help the viewer go through time and appreciate the contributions NASA has made.”
Above & Beyond: Nasa’s Journey to Tomorrow will air on Discovery in June 2018.