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Picks and Pans Review: From the Earth to the Moon

updated 04/06/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/06/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HBO (Sun., April 5, 8 p.m. ET)

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Playing astronaut James Lovell in 1995's Apollo 13 must have ignited Tom Hanks's booster engines. The two-time Oscar winner (Forrest Gump, Philadelphia) is the executive producer and Alistair Cooke-style host of this $65 million, special-effects-laden, 12-hour miniseries (two episodes air back-to-back each week) dramatizing the race to the moon—from 1961, when JFK first proposed landing an American there by the end of the decade, to 1972, when the last two astronauts cavorted on the lunar surface.

But while this ambitious project is one giant leap for an actor, it's also a small misstep. The opener, which Hanks himself directed, bogs down with tedious "Can we do this?" conferences between NASA bureaucrats and White House policy wonks (including Lateline's Al Franken). And the episode's big payoff—the 1961 flight of Alan Shepard (Ted Levine), the first American in space—is played so low-key that, as drama, it's weightless.

Part 2, however, soars as it recreates the harrowing Apollo 1 launch-test fire that killed three astronauts in 1967 and candidly details the postmortem bickering and finger-pointing that nearly grounded the space program. Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years' dyspeptic dad) is effective as gruff NASA honcho James Webb, and next week, in Part 3, Chicago Hope's Mark Harmon does a dashing turn (reminiscent of 1983's The Right Stuff) as Apollo 7's gutsy commander, Wally Schirra, while he preps for the first manned Apollo flight. Even more compelling is a May 10 episode (directed by Sally Field) on the astronauts' wives, who quietly endured their men's absences and, in some cases, their infidelities.

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