EXPO 67: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE
WHEN MOSCOW BACKS OUT OF HOSTING THE 1967 WORLD’S FAIR a full two years after winning the bid, Montreal must step up to the plate to unite Canada and ensure its international standing. But can they do it with less than five years to plan and execute a radical urban transformation – including the building of two man-made islands in the St. Lawrence River – when other cities have needed more than 10? Despite the audience’s likely foreknowledge of the outcome, Expo 67: Mission Impossible endeavors to be a real nail-biter. Drawing on a collection of 80,000 archival finds – including planning documents, photos, film footage, newspaper clippings, blueprints, sketches and maps – the film traces the journey from fool’s errand to mission accompli. The 1960s jazz score and slick editing move us through a chronological retelling of municipal and national political tensions, planning and engineering hurdles, and constant public skepticism.
Interviews with the surviving players in this underdog’s tale are sprinkled between gorgeous archival shots of Montreal and the fairgrounds them- selves. The film elevates urban planners to epic heroes nearly as charismatic, besieged, and foolhardy as those of Homer’s poems – a technique that certainly makes for dramatic storytelling. The downside of the hagiographic narrative is that very little time is left for the viewer to take pleasure in the sumptuous design elements of the exposition itself, or to contemplate the relevance of the event’s themes and worldviews. Still, we get wonderful glimpses of the advertising, logo design, scale models, illustrations, aerial views, and patrons (who include celebrities and heads of state). And by the end, Expo 67 is judged a resounding success – “the greatest universal exposition of all time,” even – and credited as proof that French and Anglo Canadians can make extraordinary music together (even as apprehensions around separatism were reaching a fever pitch). Moreover, Montreal’s status as a modern global village is announced and guaranteed going forward. Mais bien sûr.
Dr. Papagena Robbins is a teacher and film scholar based in Montreal.