The 2016 film Houston, We Have a Problem! was released as an English/Slovene language film, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. It received some attention at various film festivals at which it played and was nominated as Slovenia’s entry for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film category. However, it received far more attention for its premise.
The film purports to be an American-made documentary created based upon newly-declassified documents. Those documents show a previously-unknown historical basis for the U.S. manned space program; that it actually was intertwined with Yugoslavian-developed space technology.
As a foreign made film, Houston is bound to appeal to a much smaller audience right off the bat. Also, despite the attention it has received, seems to be difficult to get a hold of. I watched it on Netflix* streaming, but don’t see it available in the other usual places. Amazon doesn’t seem to have it for sale, either as a DVD or as a download, and Netflix has streaming only, no DVD. Netflix must have pushed it on me at some point. I’ve told you all before how I try to avoid reading the synopses of a movie before watching it. In this case, I kind of misread the blurb and thought it was going to be a “the moon landings were faked” film. Once I watched it, I realize the premise is both a lot more interesting, and a lot more complex.
If you want to watch the movie before I discuss it, do so now. This isn’t one of those films where there is a “big reveal” somewhere towards the end. Nevertheless, I believe that most films are meant to be presented in a certain way and are therefore enjoyed best coming into them cold. Fair warning.
So the first half the film develops a premise that the Yugoslavian government came into possession of engineer Herman Potočnik‘s advanced rocketry work in the aftermath of the Second World War. The engineering work has designed, on paper, a launch vehicle capable of sending humans to the moon. Using this work, they jump-start a space program which, initially, is competitive with the superpowers, getting so far as to launching a pig on a sub-orbital trajectory. At some point, Tito realizes that an expensive space program is a liability, particularly to a nation whose socialist policies are failing to provide for the basic needs. At the same time, the U.S. program is experiencing difficulties in their manned space programs and so Tito markets the Yugoslavian efforts to the Americans.
What’s interesting here is that the film is done absolutely straight. Comparisons are made with This Is Spinal Tap, but while that grandfather of all mockumentaries was made for obvious comedic effect, this one gives only very subtle hints that it is being less than truthful. The packaging material (if you can call it that for a streaming film) heavily emphasizes that the movie is “fake.” Perhaps such warnings are felt to be necessary given how believable the film might be to the unforewarned. The style is exactly what you would expect in a true documentary on the subject. There are current interviews with the participants mixed with archival footage mixed with the documentary crew visiting the key locations in the narrative.
The film proposes that the U.S. and Yugoslavia came to an agreement to transfer the entirety of the Yugoslavia space program to America for a substantial financial sum ($2.5 billion). It then explains that the April 8th, 1961 visit of Tito to Morocco was actually a coverup for the physical transfer of the Yugoslavian space assets to America. In Yugoslavia, the result is that the country succeeds above all the other countries in the Soviet orbit using this injection of Western cash. Meanwhile in the U.S., NASA engineers find out that the Yugoslavian technology is not a solution and, in fact, it has put them even further behind the Russians because now they have dumped billions of the space budget into propping up Tito.
The second half of the film characterizes the entire history of Yugoslavia, from 1961 through to the breakup of the country thirty-one-years later, in light of the ongoing conflict between the President(s) of the United States and Tito to either make the space technology work, or return the money. Again, there is heavy use of period footage shown in a way that clearly (?) supports the proposition. The narrative includes, amusingly, the sale of the failed Yugo automobiles in the U.S. and, ultimately, that the CIA engineered the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1992 so as to make it easier to recoup those payments made for the space technology.
So the film isn’t really about the space program, U.S., Yugoslavian, or otherwise. In some ways it is about Cold War Yugoslavia, but even that is somewhat incidental. I see several themes here that comprise what this movie is really about.
First of all, it can be seen as a commentary on “fake news.” As the small print at the end of the credits finally says, some parts of the movie are real and some are utterly false. Watching the movie, could you spot the difference? The only way to discern between the two is to know, a priori, the true history for yourself. An early You Tube teaser for the film apparently resulted in leaving more than half of viewers convinced that, indeed, Yugoslavia had a space program and sold it to the United States.
On top of that, there is another level, presented by philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who opens the film and comments frequently throughout. He is portrayed on a set nearly identical to the one in The Matrix, where Morpheus instructs Neo as to the true nature of the world which he thought was real. Throughout, Žižek questions the nature of reality, deception, and conspiracy theories. One amusing scene has him reacting to his own involvement in the Yugoslavian space story, where he is portrayed as being on the payroll of the CIA.
At least one reviewer also suggested the film is a stab at jugonostalgija (Yugo-nostalgia), the sentiment that life was better under Tito as well as perhaps a hope that someone like him might restore the region to better times. Yugoslavia was a gateway between East and West during much of the Cold War. Tito was allowed some political independence, with which he was occasionally critical of Russian policy. Yugoslavia was also allowed more economic interaction with Western Europe which, in part, accounted for a greater level of prosperity compared with the Soviet Republics. Being open, it also served as a showcase for the success of Socialism and thus it was in Russia’s interest for it to have a higher standard-of-living than the rest of the communist world. As the movie suggests, at least part of that prosperity resulted from playing both sides of Cold War game – itself one of the jugonostalgija legacies of Tito as a shrewd statesman and negotiator.
All-in-all, this is an excellent piece of filmmaking. The same article linked above suggested that the film might pass over the heads of even the more intelligent of viewers, both in the former Yugoslavia and in the United States. That may be true, but the filmmakers have cut a gem for those that can appreciate it.
*Since this post is largely appreciative of Netflix for providing access to a work that might otherwise be unavailable, I’ll mitigate that with a complaint. Netflix has changed the way they display search results. I don’t know how new the change was, but this movie made it obvious. Searching for a movie in the DVD panel will not turn up any results that are streaming only. Likewise, searching in the streaming panel will not turn up the results for available DVDs. When looking for something you want to watch, therefore, it is necessary to search both places.