Countdown

Countdown

The 1960s Space Race saw the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an ever-evolving game of oneupmanship. One that saw them leaping from first satellite to the first man to the first woman and first multi-person crew to, thanks to President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 declaration before Congress, to putting someone on the Moon first. That goal was reached in July 1969, when Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Module Eagle onto the lunar surface.

In a different world, it might have been another astronaut taking that one giant leap using modified Gemini hardware with such a scenario depicted in Robert Altman’s 1968 movie Countdown.

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Remaking the World

It wasn’t until the modern era that would-be conquerors and do-gooders could think on a global scale. The discovery of the New World and the invention of steamboats, the telegraph, airplanes, television and intercontinental ballistic missiles made the world feel smaller. Egyptian pharaohs and Chinese emperors may have claimed to rule everything under the sun and the heavens; it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that an island nation on the western edge of Eurasia could acquire an empire on which the sun never set.

The potential of world conquest inflated the ambitions of political movements. Marxists called for a world revolution of the proletariat. Fascist Germany and Japan planned to divide the world between them. America sought to make the world safe for democracy.

If world war and world conquest were possible, then surely so were world peace and unity? Pan-Europeanism and internationalism flourished in the twentieth century, giving life to the League of Nations, the United Nations and what would become the European Union.

From the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas to the would-be EUs of the present day, here’s a history at attempts — few of them successful — to remake the world.

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Kippur

Kippur

The 1973 Yom Kippur War was short and pointless, lasting under three weeks. It was, however, a war that changed the Middle East. It was another attempt by the Egyptians and Syrians to humiliate the Israeli titan, and ended with the Arabs emboldened, even though they lost.

The Egyptians had successfully crossed the Suez Canal into Sinai. This was a war Egypt and Syria could not blame on Israel, the way they did in 1948 and 1956 and 1967. It paved the way for peace between Egypt and Israel, which in turn led to Anwar Sadat’s assassination.

In 2002, Amos Gitai interrogated the heroic myths of the first Arab-Israeli war in Kedma (review here). Two years earlier, in Kippur, he interrogated the myths of the Yom Kippur War.

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Supersonic Jets That Weren’t

Eighteen years after the last flight of the Concorde, supersonic jets are making a comeback. United Airlines is buying fifteen planes from a new company, Boom, which would enter service later this decade. Flight times from London to New York would be cut in half.

There was a time when the future of flight was supersonic. After the first supersonic fighter jets joined the air fleets of NATO and the Soviet Union in the 1950s, British and French aircraft manufacturers started development of a supersonic passenger plane, which would culminate in the Concorde. Afraid of being eclipsed by their European rivals, Boeing and Lockheed put their own plans into motion, funded by the United States Congress. The Soviets couldn’t stay behind and eventually beat Concorde to the first faster-than-sound commercial flight in 1968 with the Tupolev Tu-144.

Little came of the American design efforts, and supersonic flights were banned over the continental United States due to loud sonic booms. Concorde was allowed to fly into Washington DC and New York, but by the time it was able to make frequent transatlantic crossings, competition from the Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet”, which could seat four times the passengers of the previously-ubiquitous Boeing 707, meant there was no mass market for a supersonic airliner anymore. Rising oil prices didn’t help, and Concorde needed four times the fuel of the 747. Concorde became a plaything of the rich. In 1997, a round-trip from London to New York would set you back nearly $8,000, or $13,000 in today’s money; thirty times the price of the cheapest ticket available.

What doomed Concorde was the only fatal accident in its history: the 2000 crash at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in which all 109 passengers and crew were killed. Coming just before a general downtown in commercial aviation due to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and after Airbus announced it would no longer supply replacement parts for the aircraft, it meant the end of the supersonic dream.

How different things had looked in the 1960s and 70s.

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Pride

Pride

The 1980s were a tense time in the United Kingdom. There was the bombing campaign by the Provisional IRA that almost succeeded in assassinating Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister who brought neoliberalism to the shores of Great Britain. There are two other things from that period that linger in the memory: the miners’ strikes and the burgeoning gay rights movement.

Those last two are more connected than you might think. To make a long story short, one of the reasons that the gay rights movement in the country got as big as it did was due to a campaign by London-based gay and lesbian activists to support the miners, who were being targeted by the Thatcher government. This became Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, which raised money for those on strike. The National Union of Mineworkers reciprocated by using its clout in the Labour Party to bring about support for gay rights.

This struggle is dramatized in the 2014 film Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus. It’s a film that starts among the gay community of London, revolving around a number of activists who take the bold move of finding solidarity with those who are unlike them. One of its central characters is Mark Ashton (played by Ben Schnetzer), the firebrand of our set of characters who brings with him a fuming rage against societal injustice. He is the sort of activist that brings about real change, one who is willing to get his hands dirty and speak truth to power.

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The Art of Roy Gjertson

Roy Gjertson studied art in Minnesota and Los Angeles before serving as a B-24 radio operating and gunner during World War II. After the war, he resumed his career as an illustrator for aviation companies in California.

Gjertson is best known for the work he did for General Dynamics in San Diego. During his two decades there, he drew everything from commercial airliners to futuristic space shuttles for the company’s advertisements and proposals.

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Deutschland 86

Deutschland 86

Babylon Berlin is said to be the best drama series to ever come out of Germany. I disagree. My vote goes to Deutschland 83 (review here), in which border guard Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) is recruited by East German intelligence and thrust into the middle of a nuclear standoff.

The series wasn’t hugely popular in Germany, but it found enough viewers abroad to warrant a sequel. Deutschland 86 takes place three years later. Martin has been exiled to Angola. His aunt, Lenora (Maria Schrader), who is also a spy, is working on an operation in South Africa. Naturally they run into each other again.

The ten episodes masterfully weave together the events of the time in a compelling narrative: the slow collapse of apartheid in South Africa, the civil war in Angola, Muammar Gaddafi’s support for international terrorism, the La Belle disco bombing in Berlin — all against the backdrop of the American-Soviet Cold War.

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