Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is city editor of the Napa Valley Register.

Century Napa Valley doesn’t get much business from me. I like small movies on small screens.

But every so often a film demands going big. And so it was with “Apollo 11,” the new documentary about the first moon walk 50 years ago this July.

If a Saturn V rocket blasting three astronauts into outer space isn’t a big-screen movie, then what is?

I was one of 600 million people around the world who watched live in 1969 as Neil Armstrong stepped off a lunar module onto the dusty moon surface.

I’m not a space groupie, but reading the reviews of “Apollo 11,” a surprising compulsion welled up within me. I just had to see it in a theater.

But what about Cheryl for whom a NASA documentary might be a tough sell?

I tried a subtle approach, texting her at work: “There may be a big-screen movie in our future.”

“Dumbo,” she replied, referencing the upcoming Disney remake.

She was so off the mark.

When I identified “Apollo 11,” Cheryl’s brain began to spin. After a pause, she agreed, but only if I’d go with her Costco shopping Saturday morning.

I had anticipated this quid pro quo. Of course, I said.

Our $350 Costco spree required two carts to accommodate all the tissues, tomato plants, sacks of organic potting soil, a case of barkThins, multiple peanut butters and discount tickets to our Century Napa Valley.

On our home TV we’d seen “First Man,” an Apollo 11 dramatization starring Ryan Gosling, a month earlier. A tepid retelling, but it had whetted my appetite for the real Apollo 11.

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When we entered the lobby of the Century Napa Valley Saturday night, my nose curled. What’s that awful smell?

Buttered popcorn, Cheryl said. Tubs of it.

Let me summarize the movie: Big rocket pointed to the heavens, an ignition so explosive you think the astronauts have been blown to kingdom come, serene outer space, legions of white men with short haircuts staring into monitors, light astronaut banter, a tense descent to the moon’s surface, an even tenser plunge through the Earth’s atmosphere to get back home.

A fellow patron found a way to defuse this tension for those sitting near her. She began fishing around in a paper bag for snack nibbles. Ruffle, ruffle, ruffle, crunch, crunch, crunch.

Lovely, just lovely.

The movie ended in celebration. There were ticker tape parades for the astronauts in New York and Chicago, and phoned congratulations from President Nixon who said this space achievement would promote peace on earth.

I’m not sure he meant it. At that moment he was up to his eyeballs in the Vietnam War, and would prosecute it for more years despite advisers saying it was unwinnable.

Thankfully, the movie ended not with Nixon but with President Kennedy who seven years earlier had committed the U.S. to sending a man to the moon.

In his 1962 speech, Kennedy summed up the Apollo mission as it would play out in 1969:

If we were going to “send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun—almost as hot as it is here today—and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold.”

Kennedy nailed it.

We were bold, so incredibly bold.

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Kevin can be reached at 707-256-2217 or Napa Valley Register, 1615 Soscol Ave., Napa, 94559, or kcourtney@napanews.com.


City Editor

Kevin has been city editor since September 2010. He joined the Register in 1973 as a reporter. He covered Napa City Hall and assorted other beats over the years. Kevin has been writing his Napa Journal column on Sundays since 1989.