Area 51 Declassified debuts tonight on National Geographic Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Back when I was a teenager watching The X-Files, it was hard to miss Fox's advertising for Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction. And since it aired right after the continuing adventures of Mulder and Scully, I watched it. My primary memory of it was that a supposed special effects guru said something along the lines of “I don't know that it's possible to do a blood effect like that with out current technology." Of course, checking Wikipedia now, apparently the SFX guy said it was a hoax, but that was edited out, and it was actually put together by a special effects team.

I'd love to talk about how this ruined one of my great childhood beliefs or the like, but teenaged Rowan was always more of a Scully than a Mulder. No, I bring it up primarily because this was my fear with Area 51 Declassified. The initial press release also included details for the ridiculously named When Aliens Attack and a still of a CGI image of an alien carrier hovering above New York City. I did not get a screener for this, and I hope some of you can report on its excellence in the comments.

Still, I started noticing more and more press for the book that this documentary is based upon, such as this interview at NPR, I started paying more attention. And once I started watching and heard the dulcet tones of David Strathairn's narration, I think it's fair to say that my fears were assuaged. Area 51 is the opposite of fear-mongering. Which, I suppose, may lead some to declare it to be hoax-justifying piece of propaganda, but I suppose that was inevitable regardless.

Area 51 does have the form of a typical, sober documentary, with only a few nods to sensationalism. The bulk of it is comprised of interviews with men who worked at Area 51 in the '50s and '60s, as well as fascinating declassified filmstrips. The revelations are nothing shocking: Area 51 exists, and it was used by the C.I.A. to test spy planes like the U-2 and its successor (and Blackbird predecessor) OXCART. And, well, that's about it. There's a lot of detail in how those things came about and the games the staff played in order to distract the Soviets but nothing terribly lurid. There are also no dissenting opinions. The closest comes from a local woman, who nervously yammers about potential aliens. “It's okay if they are there as long as they don't go overboard, like you're looking into an Independence Day type thing.”

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What is there is the personality of the pilots and staff interviewed. All of them are affable, even cheerful when talking about Area 51. This includes very friendly and logical arguments about why Area 51's extreme veil of secrecy was in effect. “There are a lot of things that people just don't need to know,” one says. The narration is generally neutral, although at one point Strathairn describes the U-2 spy plane as “one of the most important weapons of the Cold War,” which seems like an odd sentence formulation. The interviewees are more direct about it, justifying their careers (and stresses on their families) with statements like “It was a real Cold War.” Still, other than those occasional forays into politics, the documentary simply presents the facts given by the subjects.

One of them, in a quote that's also being used in the ads for Area 51, states that he's only telling “5 percent of the story” which is an odd thing to say and advertise. It's theoretically supposed to draw you in, I suppose, but I also think it's an implicit apology for the lack of scandal in the doc. Dig a little deeper, and it's basically a statement that nothing here is entirely true. Imagine a teenager coming home past her curfew and responding to parents' queries with “I'm only going to tell you 5 percent of the story.” A clue as to what was hidden can be found in the NPR interview, where the author says that only one source told her a story of a crashed Soviet plane containing the modified bodies of adolescent humans. That story, unverified by the author, makes no appearance in Area 51: Declassified.

In a way, though, the exclusion of stories like those make the documentary stronger as a document, if weaker as television. If you can't get people on camera to talk about the crazy stuff, perhaps that's a sign that it should be avoided. This isn't Alien Autopsy, and that's a good thing. It is a straightforward and effective documentary about one fascinating aspect of the Cold War in America.

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Random Area 51 Tidbits:

  • One fellow only remembers one woman coming to the base, ever. For a single night.
  • Most of the men seem to have had families and commuted from L.A.. And they went home and lied to their wives to keep the secrets.
  • Despite that, one of Area 51's early names was “Paradise Ranch.”
  • The contortions that the men went through to deceive the Soviets about the nature of the base are partially funny, but alongside their marriage stresses, kind of sad. They had to be committed to the goals of winning the Cold War, but “winning” and “war” are rather nebulous concepts in this case.
  • One pilot, being picked up after crashing a top-secret plane, tells his rescuers not to check out the wreckage because he was carrying a nuclear bomb. That's right, a crashed nuclear bomb was considered a preferable public story to a spy plane!
  • Some of the equipment used for the moon landings was tested at Area 51, which one subject believes was the basis for the legend that the landings were faked there.

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