In the Shadow of the Moon
There was a time in living memory when, as a world, we were still capable of being thrilled. In July of 1969, human beings around the globe watched and cheered and felt united as never before when Apollo 11 fulfilled President Kennedy’s challenge, issued eight years earlier, to send a man to the moon by the end of the decade and bring him safely back to earth.
As astronaut Jim Lovell recalls, the late ‘60s was a bad time for America. We were bogged down in unpopular war in Vietnam, we were still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King,Jr and the Kennedys, we were protesting against the racism and sexism of our society. Americans needed a positive mojo and Apollo 11 gave it to us.
In the Shadow of the Moon, David Sington’s documentary about the Apollo program, is a riveting window onto the excitement, the improbability, and the outsized adventure of man’s journeys to the moon. It was a remarkable era, and a remarkably brief one. By 1972, barely a decade after John Kennedy’s visionary challenge, we had been to the moon, walked upon its surface, and then left it behind, perhaps forever.
Been to the moon! There are still people who don’t believe it. A1999 Gallup poll found that 6 percent of Americans think it was a hoax. This understandably riles the astronauts who are interviewed in the film. Andy Bean, the fourth man to set foot on the moon, points out how hard it is for even two or three people to keep a secret, and wonders how people can imagine the entire NASA roster could have kept buttoned up on a whopper like that. Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, is more succinct: “Truth needs no defense.”
Sington has amassed rare and beautiful footage of the Apollo missions, some of it never seen before, and he illuminates it with interviews with nine of the ten surviving astronauts (the reclusive Neil Armstrong declined to participate) who made the 480,000 mile round trip journey to our closest neighbor. It’s truly astonishing, and it fills you with a sense of awe at the audacity, the vision, the technology, the commitment, the luck, and the stunning courage and coolness of these men and the army of scientists who sent them on their way.
In many ways this is a story of perspectives. The men who walked on the moon speak in hushed, almost mystical tones of the view that they alone, of the billions of people born on this planet, have had of Earth. “A jewel that hangs in the blackness of space,” marvels one, while another muses that he could hold up his thumb in front of his eye and blot out his home planet. “It really is an oasis,” says David Scott, “and we don’t take very good care of it.” Mike Collins reflects that from out there in space, “maybe some of our terrestrial squabbles don’t seem quite so important.” In the aftermath of their lunar experience, many of the astronauts found themselves searching for ways to explain to themselves the feelings engendered by their unique perspective. Charlie Duke found it in Christianity, Egdar Mitchell in mysticism and global activism, while Gene Cernan looked to “something above the religions that we create for ourselves.”
The passage of the years since the Apollo adventures creates another perspective. Listening to these men now in their seventies recalling that high tide of their lives, watching their faces, now creased and sometimes haunted maps of experience, as they reflect on going where no one had gone before and perhaps no one ever will again, creates a dimension that could not have been a part of it had this film been made thirty years ago.
Sington does not explore much of the darker side of the story. He does take us back to the heartbreaking fire on the launching pad that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee, the crew of Apollo 1. Collins remembers that Grissom was worried about the electrical wiring in the capsule, but didn’t complain because “if I say anything about it they’ll fire me.” Whatever fears these men had were overwhelmed by their passionate desire to be a part of the adventure.
There’s nothing here about the toll the experience took on so many of their marriages and personal lives in the aftermath, and very little about the personality differences that added a subtext to their experience. In Moondust, Andrew Smith’s fascinating book on the astronauts’ lives after their lunar visits, he explores this territory. Talking about Buzz Aldrin’s jealousy of Neil Armstrong, Smith quotes from Collins’s 1974 memoir Carrying the Fire: “Fame has not worn well on Buzz,” Collins wrote. “I think he resents not being the first man on the moon more than he appreciates being the second.”
But the tenor of In the Shadow of the Moon is inspirational, not investigative, and it takes us through this most incredible of man’s adventures with our breath held and our hearts pounding. For younger people it will be an eye-opener, for those a little older, a reminder of a time when the world came together and rejoiced in something that felt like a global accomplishment, a giant leap for mankind. The movie fills us with wonder, and pride, and a tugging sense of loss.
© Text 2007 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be