Documentaries for Engineers: Mission Control, Denial, and Viva Amiga

These three films will keep you thoughtfully entertained during your vacation travels

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August is when many of us find ourselves taking long trips to get to vacation destinations. Documentaries are a particularly good choice for travel viewing: Unlike with a special-effects extravaganza, you’re not losing out all that much on the experience by watching them on the small screen of a smartphone or tablet, and their 60- to 90-minute length won’t eat up storage space. Here are three recommendations for recently-released-for-download documentaries that we think IEEE Spectrum readers will find interesting (all are available either directly from the filmmaker or from outlets like iTunes and Amazon).

  • Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo

    In Mission Control, director David Fairhead, an experienced hand at space-race documentaries, focuses on the men who manned the consoles in Houston during the Apollo program. In addition to interviews with surviving controllers (and a couple of astronauts), the movie taps a tremendous collection of rare footage—I’ve seen a lot of Apollo footage over the years, and there is a good amount of material here that was unfamiliar to me.

    Not surprisingly, the movie spends a huge chunk of time on the Apollo 13 crisis. I do have one quibble here: The film restates that no one had previously considered anything like the explosion that started the crisis. But for a 2005 Spectrum article about Apollo 13, lunar-module controllers explained that one largely forgotten simulation with a very similar scenario had been an important spur to developing procedures that were critical in saving the Apollo 13 crew. But that’s truly a quibble. This is a movie where it’s a joy to see absolutely competent people executing their mission with near perfection.

  • Denial: The First Step to Acceptance

    Derek Hallquist set out to make a personal movie about the electrical grid—and then it became far more personal than he expected. Hallquist began by filming his father, Dave Hallquist, the CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, proselytizing for smart-grid technology. Hallquist junior was then completely freaked out when Hallquist senior came out to him as a transgender woman. Denial follows the threads of Hallquist senior and junior’s personal struggles interwoven with the elder Hallquist’s attempts to strike a balance between promoting renewables and keeping Vermont’s lights on. In one scene, Hallquist senior faces down protesters to install wind turbines, while in another she lobbies politicians to abolish a renewable mandate for fear of destabilizing the grid.

    In speaking with news site VTDigger, Derek Hallquist noted that the juxtaposition of the personal and the technical probably made the movie more appealing to a broader audience, saying, “A smart-grid movie would have been watched by engineers and gearheads.” Well, as your gearhead viewer, I would indeed have liked to hear a little bit more from Hallquist senior about the technical issues that make renewable energy so challenging to grids. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition does work surprisingly well, such as when Hallquist senior, now named Christine Hallquist, explains how she deeply sympathizes with privacy concerns over smart meters: At the time, she was afraid of losing her job if anyone found out she was transgender. Denial’s portrayal of a complex person dealing with a complex subject is worth watching.

  • Viva Amiga: The Story of a Beautiful Machine

    We have a lot of love for the Amiga line of computers here at Spectrum, and how they’ve hung on, despite the odds. In fact, Adam P. Spring favorably commented on Viva Amiga in 2015 when he was covering the Amiga’s 30th birthday celebration for us. But the movie has only recently become available to download.

    Viva Amiga is a little thin on technical content—Amigas featured a lot of really interesting silicon, which director Zach Weddington merely gives a nod to. But Viva Amiga does do a great job of describing what set Amigas apart, and why users had intensely personal relationships with their machines. Amigas were mid-priced computers intended for creating art and entertainment that punched well above their price tag. Unfortunately, Amiga’s owner, Commodore, wanted the premium prices that came from selling an office-friendly machine like the IBM PC. In an age when our computers and smartphones are increasingly just glorified fungible terminals for cloud services, it’s truly nostalgic to look at a computer that was designed to be fun.

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