Early in the lengthy development process for Expedition 6, Bill Pullman's new theatrical docudrama based on events surrounding the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of February 2003, the actor/director exchanged thoughts about the project with German film auteur Wim Wenders. "When Wim Wenders first heard me talking about the show, he was convinced that it would make a better movie than stage play. However, once we discussed the politics, philosophy, and poetic nature of the piece, he agreed that it would work best on stage," says Pullman, who is best known for his roles in films like Independence Day and Lost Highway and on Broadway in Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
Despite the fact that screen docudramas such as United 93 served as inspiration for Pullman's project, it is indeed unlikely that Expedition 6 would fly on celluloid. For one thing, Pullman's decision to focus attention on the story of the three crew members of NASA Expedition 6 who found themselves trapped aboard the International Space Station for six months following the Columbia's flameout is less conventionally cinematic than the emotionally charged tale of the shuttle disaster itself. (I don't suppose Pullman's elevator pitch — "it's about three astronauts who sit around in space for half a year waiting to be rescued" – would have too many Hollywood executives salivating at the chance to build a replica of the ISS on the studio backlot.) For another, Pullman's thinking on his subject is so multifaceted it's hard to imagine all his concepts coming together within the relatively narrow confines of the feature-length movie screenplay. He orbits wildly around a nebulous mixture of themes and ideas from the rigors of the NASA astronaut training program and the invention of the parachute to weightlessness as a political metaphor and the effects of media spin.
It's a shame, then, that Expedition 6 doesn't achieve lift-off as a piece of theater. Sure, there's plenty that's "theatrical" about the production. The eight members of the ensemble cast each play multiple roles and frequently break the fourth wall, directing most of their speeches out to the audience. The mise-en-scène makes use of all manner of whimsical props (toy parachutes, a mini chopper fashioned out of a handheld drill with a propeller-shaped bit, ergonomic office chairs). Light sources include a torch, an angle-poise lamp, and a lantern as well as the regular stage rig. A cellist and pianist perform an ambient, planetarium-like soundtrack, assisted by recorded sound. Most conspicuous of all, of course, is the production's dynamic and visually poetic use of a low-flying trapeze. These sequences, choreographed by Robert Davidson, not only capture the astronauts' state of weightlessness but also serve to evoke such hard-to-imagine events as a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in freefall, a space crew's cramped quarters, and even the destruction of the Columbia. So why is it that Expedition 6 feels more like the surface of the moon — that is, strewn with random debris and lacking the grounding pull of gravity — than a captivating work for the stage?
The answer, I think, has a lot to do with one word: unity. On the opening page of his influential book, A Sense of Direction, enfant terrible of the mid-20th-century American theater world (and A.C.T. founder) William Ball writes: "The one thing that every work of art has as its center is unity. If it lacks unity, it does not qualify as a work of art." Ball's words echo a sentiment about art that goes back thousands of years, to Aristotle and beyond. But it's worth revisiting when thinking about Pullman's project. A director can throw as many theatrical effects at the stage as he likes, but if his vision lacks oneness, the production doesn't leave much of an impression on the audience.
Ironically, Expedition 6 was born out of a desire on Pullman's part to create some kind of order out of the complex events surrounding the Columbia disaster. "I was interested in the contrast between what was happening in space and issues on the ground as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq," the director said. In his production he seems to be driving, essentially, at a contrast between two opposing worldviews: the principle of universal chaos, where terrible accidents such as the Columbia disaster happen as a matter of course, versus the principle of universal order, where such incidents are preordained and occur for a reason. The production features an intriguing array of found texts including NASA space logs and Osama bin Laden speeches, which reveal Pullman's deep and broad research into his subject and suggest the vaguest outline of a counterpoint between the two worldviews.
When it comes to making art out of these texts, though, the production ends up doing little more than bombarding us with a meteor shower of half-sketched ideas. A chipper CNN reporter turns the astronauts' rescue into a soap opera. An Islamic fundamentalist sees the United States' misfortunes as a sign from Allah. A psychologist asks the space explorers what kind of animal they'd most like to return as in the next life. These concepts, though wide-ranging, fail to fuse. What thesis there might be lurking underneath gets lost in the melee of unfurling trapezes, flying bodies, whizzing office chairs, and — perplexingly — pizza trays adorned with miniature plastic fighter planes and tanks. The production piles on gimmick after gimmick, some of which (including the old Halloween trick of shining a flashlight under an actor's chin to create a "sinister" look) are sophomoric clichés. The stage is covered in bits of random paraphernalia, but little of it serves to anchor Pullman's vision. By the end of the play, we have no better idea of what the director thinks about the Columbia disaster and its relationship to world events than we did at the beginning. It's as if Pullman is still working out his thesis, despite several years of developmental workshops on the piece. We feel as wandering and weightless as the lonely astronauts stuck clueless of their fate on the ISS.
Yet at moments, Expedition 6 crystallizes into art, offering us a glimpse into life at zero gravity that is as sharp and bright as a desert sky at night. The balletic-sculptural trapeze sequences lift the viewer into an emotional realm. Casting long shadows under cold blue lights, the dangling human forms do more to express the idea of a planet in freefall, of humanity lost in space, than all the robotically delivered NASA statistics and bland media interviews combined. Expedition 6 touches us deeply during these brief interludes because they exist at the point where the "politics, philosophy, and poetic nature" of Pullman's discussion with Wenders unite.