Netflix’s Michelle Obama Doc ‘Becoming’ Will Give You Hope – or Drive You Crazy

Three documentaries you need to see, including how Michelle Robinson became the first lady, how man got to the moon in ‘Apollo 11,’ and the story of a ‘Badass Beauty Queen’

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Former first lady Michelle Obama signs copies of her memoir Becoming at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., November 13, 2018.
Former first lady Michelle Obama signs copies of her memoir Becoming at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., November 13, 2018. Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski/REUTERS
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

I am part of a very small subset of parents who chastise their children for not watching enough television. We are so minute in size that the only smaller one features parents who wish their daughters would spend more time hanging out with delinquent boys.

In fairness, my 17-year-old daughter appears to be developing impeccable viewing tastes (last show binged: “Mad Men”). It’s her 16-year-old sister I’m worried about.

She appears to have the same enthusiasm for television as for math homework. So I was delighted this week when my perennial question – “Watching anything good?” – actually received an affirmative response: “Yes, ‘Outer Banks.’” Progress, although I’m choosing to gloss over her reply when I asked for a hot take on the show: “Well ... the boys are hot!”

Of course, my dream is that watching television will eventually send my kids down rabbit holes – thank God we never called either of them Alice – to discover all the amazing shows out there. Reader, I shall know my parenting duties are fulfilled the day either kid tells me, “Dad, I’ve just seen the most amazing documentary!”

Let’s be honest, most of us could do with more documentaries in our viewing diets and to stop seeing them like health foods: Something that’s beneficial for us, but one we’ll only choose when the yummy options have gone. Yes, the documentary is the chia seed bar of the viewing world.

It’s completely unfair that docs have such a wholesome reputation, of course. Yes, their subjects can be worthy, educational or preaching to the converted. But they also tell stories that increasingly connect with wider audiences.

Here are three you should seek out this week – and not just because you’ve exhausted your supply of tasty viewing snacks…

‘Becoming’

Clearly, Netflix’s new Michelle Obama documentary is aimed at people who are more likely to think “Obama great!” than “OBAMAGATE!” But it was a film I really needed to see right now: one that gives me at least some hope for the future of the United States.

As well as writing their memoirs – and wouldn’t you just love it if President Barack Obama trolls everyone and begins his with “Chapter 1: Kenya” – the Obamas have moved into film production. And their company’s name suggests the couple is not averse to some trolling: Higher Ground Productions.

Its first two documentaries – “American Factory” and “Crip Camp” (also both on Netflix) – are essential viewing. But while containing no major revelations or leaving any doubt that this is a “holds-barred” portrayal, “Becoming” is still a quietly informative, uplifting film. It follows Michelle Obama on the first leg of her 34-date book tour in 2018-19, hawking her best-selling memoir of the same name. Mind you, the size of the tour venues and caliber of the onstage interviewers – i.e., Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Colbert, Gayle King (who steals the show with her empathetic line of questioning) – make this a book tour like no other.

Oprah Winfrey talks with former first lady Michelle Obama at her book tour at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., November 13, 2018.
Oprah Winfrey talks with former first lady Michelle Obama at her book tour at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., November 13, 2018. Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski/REUTERS

Watching “Becoming” is to be reminded of a seemingly dim and distant time when human decency was the very least we expected from the occupant of the Oval Office. This is a documentary that, for liberals, highlights all the stark contrasts between presidents 44 and 45 – starting with the very idea of a White House incumbent reading, let alone writing, an acclaimed book.

It is Michelle Obama’s approach to the young women she meets in book-signing sessions and special workshops that leaves a lasting impression; one of a passionate, determined feminist who really does embody all that is good about the American Dream – even when gives others nightmares. Indeed, those of a right-leaning persuasion would probably barf were they to witness the lines of gushing fangirls waiting to meet the former first lady. But even they might struggle to deny Obama’s ability to engage with these youngsters – fleeting meetings she refers to as being “like an emotional, sociological dance.”

I loved her interactions with her family: brother Craig (“Mom’s favorite”), aging mom Marian Lois Robinson and, fleetingly, that famous husband of hers and kids Malia and Sasha – and if at least one of them doesn’t enter politics, America could be seriously missing out.

Then there’s her longtime chief of staff Melissa Winter, who Obama describes in her book as possessing an “almost obsessive devotion to detail.” A yekke, then, albeit one with an infectious, “irreverent wit” that is clear whenever she is onscreen.

The moment that resonated most with me was when Obama described her last day in the White House in January 2017, and how she sobbed for 30 minutes on Air Force One afterward – an emotional response to “eight years of trying to do everything perfectly.” It is impossible not to flash-forward to the end of the Trump reign and try (in vain) to imagine a similar reaction from any of the passengers on that particular flight.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering what kind of book Melania Trump will write when her days in the White House are over – just read “Becoming,” because Melania will probably plagiarize that as well.

“Becoming” is now streaming on Netflix.

‘Apollo 11’

Regardless of whether you think the NASA lunar mission was merely the phallocentric project of a priapic president, Stanley Kubrick’s finest movie or one giant leap for mankind, it can’t be denied that it gave us some of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

Yet despite the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969 being one of the biggest stories of all time, a lot of the official footage of it has only been unearthed recently – and much of it is put to brilliant use in Todd Douglas Miller’s stunning documentary.

Over 93 hypnotic minutes, “Apollo 11” chronicles the mission’s eight days in precise, but never too much, detail – from the moment the 300-foot, 6.5-million-pound rocket is trundled into position, to the ticker-tape parades hailing returning heroes Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

What’s notable about “Apollo 11” is that by recounting the story using archival materials (thousands of hours of footage and previously unheard audio recordings), Miller is able to create a story far more compelling than a fictionalized drama such as Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” (about Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission).

What’s even more remarkable is that he achieves this by letting the footage and audio do all of the work.

We’re used to space documentaries utilizing avuncular figures like Tom Hanks as awestruck narrators in the likes of “Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D” (2005). Here, though, Miller uses the NASA Mission Control commentary that was recorded in real time to act as our guide.

Buzz Aldrin in "Apollo 11." Cellcom TV Credit: Cellcom TV

And this is no starchy scientific spiel. Instead, we get wonderfully hyperbolic statements like “Not since Adam has any human known such solitude as Mike Collins is experiencing during the 47 minutes of each lunar revolution when he’s behind the sun.”

There may not be much left to reveal about the actual moon landing – although I can’t remember hearing Buzz Aldrin’s joke about making sure he doesn’t lock the lunar capsule hatch as he’s descending the ladder before – but it’s still ridiculously suspenseful as Aldrin pilots the lunar module down, maneuvering to avoid a “football pitch-sized” crater.

What “Apollo 11” brilliantly conveys is the sheer scale of this entire operation. There’s a 37-second tracking shot where the camera glides past 18 long rows of people in Firing Room 1 at the Kennedy Space Center – rows and rows of bespectacled, white-shirted men, each making their own small contribution to “make rocket go now,” as “The Simpson” so perfectly put it.

And yes, it is predominantly white men, all sadly unaware that Kevin Costner will one day make them look far sexier in a Hollywood movie. Early on, the film holds on a shot of a female employee in the control room, which strikes you as odd or simply sexist – yet by the end of the film, you realize she’s pretty much the only woman you’ve seen in a NASA facility who’s not married to an astronaut.

I know I have to be careful writing a sentence like this, but some of the footage really does look like it was shot yesterday (relax, folks, it just scrubbed up well). And it really is remarkable to observe quite how much footage NASA shot to document events both celestial and terrestrial – even if that footage subsequently lay forgotten in vaults while we moved on to new scientific challenges like filling pizza crust with cheese.

“Apollo 11” is a documentary that deserves to be seen on the largest TV screen and with the best sound system (I’m envious of a friend who saw it in an IMAX cinema). It should also be seen by those who think the moon landing is a hoax. In addition to all of the wonderful footage, there’s one sure way we know none of this is fake: Do you know how bad men are at keeping secrets?

The Saturn V rocket on the launching pad at the Kennedy Space Center
The Saturn V rocket on the launching pad at the Kennedy Space CenterCredit: Cellcom TV

Finally, one of the film's loveliest details comes when they reveal the heart rates of the astronauts at key moments: Aldrin’s heart rate upon liftoff was 88, while Armstrong’s as they landed on the moon was 156. If you want to understand what that feels like, watch “Becoming” followed by a Trump COVID-19 press conference and you’ll get the difference.

"Apollo 11" is on Cellcom TV, Yes VOD, Sting TV from Wednesday; Hot Cinema 4, Saturday at 10 A.M.; Yes Docu, Sunday at 10 P.M.; and CinemaTime from Sunday

‘Badass Beauty Queen’

There aren’t many documentaries about beauty pageants that contain lines like “Organ harvesting is about as controversial and sensitive as you can get.” Or where 13 crew members opt to withhold their names from the credits for fear of reprisal – and not from the Miss World Organization.

Then again, there aren’t many beauty contestants like Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-born Canadian who won the Miss World Canada crown in 2015 and went on to compete in the Miss World competition. Or at least tried to – for Lin became the unlikeliest of human rights activists, using her high-heeled platform to speak out against the Chinese regime with a fervor that put her father back home in China at risk and surely won her a place in the heart of Mike Pompeo.

It should be noted that “Badass Beauty Queen” won’t win any awards for filmmaking or balance. This is a passion project that is so old school in its approach, it should come with satchels and wedgies. It also veers dangerously close to hagiography. Yet Lin is such a fascinating subject that the film overcomes its modest storytelling qualities and obvious biases by sticking her front and center, and letting her tell her own story.

Anastasia Lin in "Badass Beauty Queen." Cellcom TV
Anastasia Lin in "Badass Beauty Queen." Cellcom TVCredit: Cellcom TV

This is a woman with real chutzpah, unafraid to rail against injustice in her homeland – even if it creates surreal scenes like her addressing the National Press Club in Washington while wearing a sash and tiara, raging against the Chinese government that wants to silence her.

Whatever else it does, “Badass Beauty Queen” will definitely make you think twice about accepting an invitation for afternoon tea from the Chinese government.

"Badass Beauty Queen" is on Cellcom TV from Wednesday

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