‘The Longest Goodbye’ Review: A Heartfelt Look at the Human Side of Space Travel | Sundance 2023
Director Ido Mizrahy looks at the psychological toll it takes on astronauts going to Mars.
Space, the final frontier. While it may feel like sometimes we are a far cry away from the world of the fictional Starfleet, The Longest Goodbye shows just how much work and how much mental fortitude is required for space travel, especially long-term space travel. Directed by Ido Mizrahy, The Longest Goodbye may seem to be about training astronauts for an eventual trip to Mars, but it also drills down deep into the look at the mental conditions a person must put themselves into when it comes to this type of severe isolation.
What is so gripping about The Longest Goodbye is that it doesn’t ever dip too far into the science of it all. For someone with little to no knowledge of space travel beyond science fiction, the documentary correctly positions the astronauts as the center of the story. This is not Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, the fight isn’t against faceless aliens or controlling robots. The greatest enemies these astronauts face are isolation and loneliness, as they are disconnected from humanity. For those of us who spent lockdown alone during the global pandemic, it’s not hard to imagine a version of life where you feel like you’ve been isolated and cut away from all that you love, forced to live alone on an island.
But the documentary shows the intense limitations of space travel. This isn’t just about being behind a locked door, this is being millions of miles away without proper communication with family and friends. We follow Dr. Al Holland, a senior NASA psychologist, who must consider the effects of astronauts being separated from their families for years at a time when traveling to Mars. Not only is real-time communication impossible, but the travelers will be trapped with the same group of strangers throughout the entire trip. The human factor is unpredictable, and the most important element to consider. The documentary digs into both the love the astronauts have for the wonder of space and also the distance it creates between them and their families.
At times, the doc dips into realms of science-fiction and if you love the genre you’ll be able to recognize hallmark inventions such as artificial intelligence meant to be a companion and therapist of sorts for the crew or the idea of putting the ship’s crew into stasis while traveling to Mars. While I’m the first person to say when we’re pushing technology too far toward a sci-fi apocalypse, The Longest Goodbye makes a strong case for technological advancement for necessity’s sake.
Much of human history’s biggest technological developments came out of necessity, and it seems like this is no different. The astronauts need someone to talk to whom they feel like they can trust, someone who won’t judge them for the legitimate feelings they have while trapped in isolation. Thus, artificial intelligence is born. The scientists want to find a more efficient way to transport the astronauts while in flight, and they toy around with the idea of putting the crew into “cryo.” None of this is explained extensively, though we understand why it’s being created.
While this is certainly the most intriguing aspect of The Longest Goodbye, its heart lies on the astronauts themselves. We meet astronaut Cady Coleman, who must co-parent with her husband on Earth while their son Jamey is going to school. Recordings of their conversation show the changes in Jamey’s behavior as he is separated from his mother and the strain the distance can impart on the family while separated.
In many ways, the conversation The Long Goodbye is trying to have is incomplete. We don’t know the full effects of long-term travel in space because we have yet to achieve it. Time on a space station or even time on the moon is not the same as time on Mars. The story feels incomplete but hopeful, offering the potential for the future without overpromising success. It constantly feels like there’s more beneath the surface of this documentary, but there might not be enough time spent on that fact. Still, it tugs at the heartstrings and offers hope to those who want to see humanity expand beyond the borders of our world.