This review was written for the theatrical release of “In the Shadow of the Moon.”
The really surprising thing is that no one has made this film before. Thank goodness someone finally did, for the dozen men it celebrates — the only human beings to have stood on an alien world — won’t be with us forever.
“In the Shadow of the Moon” unites 10 of the 12 astronauts who flew on nine Apollo missions and descended to the moon between 1968 and 1972 along with remastered archival footage from NASA, much never seen before. The value of this film, not just to moviegoers today but to future generations, is simply enormous.
Documentaries these days tend toward doom and gloom, so “Moon” is a welcome relief. The movie is about an uncontrovertibly glorious moment in U.S. history. ThinkFilm should see a nice run in art houses and perhaps beyond. The Discovery Films and Film 4 production is sure-fire TV and a collector’s item on DVD for any space and history buff. If anything, when the film ends, you feel a bit like Olivier Twist, the boy who cried out for “more.”
President Kennedy laid out the challenge for his country and for NASA in a speech to Congress in 1961, when he said that the U.S. intended to put a man on the moon by decade’s end. It proved politically and psychologically vital to the national well being to successfully meet the late president’s challenge. Assassinations, the Cold War, Vietnam, student protests and the civil rights agitation left the country in a surly mood. Here was something Americans as a people could get right. And they did.
Director David Sington achieves a rising sense of tension despite the fact that every viewer knows the outcome. He has superbly mixed astute interviews with the men who rode those rockets to glory with space footage that in many instances is jaw-dropping. From reams of footage, he has selected meaningful shots of the men in those tiny capsules and footage of the spacecraft doing its Herculean tasks. And by synching 16mm rolls shot in Mission Control with 16-track audio recordings of the mission controllers’ voices, he has the viewer inside the beating, earthly heart of the mission.
You would expect highly educated men like astronauts to offer sagacious commentary, but what a surprise to encounter such wonderful characters. Mike Collins is chatty, witty and — dare we say it — so down to earth. Alan Bean is all emotions, loving the fact he had the “Right Stuff,” as Tom Wolfe’s book and the subsequent movie insisted, but admitting he was “one of the most fearful astronauts.”
Buzz Aldrin has a touch of the poet and can see the meta in the physics. Jim Lovell, the calm commander of the near-miraculous Apollo 13 recovery, is the soul of equanimity and bemusement. Dave Scott is professorial though fully engaged. Edgar Mitchell has a touch of Zen, seeing in his own molecules, fashioned from a primordial stew of chemicals after the Big Bang a “connectedness, a oneness” between himself and space.
Conspicuously absent is the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, the most reclusive and publicity shy of the astronaut corps.
Sington and editor David Fairhead impose a solid structure, giving the race to get to the moon in the final months of 1969 priority up to the moment of the lunar landing, the most watched event on television in history. Then he rushes forward to future missions including the near disaster of Apollo 13, only to backtrack to the first moon walk and the tricky matter of Armstrong and Aldrin getting off the moon in their lunar module and back to Collins in the mother ship.
Along the way, the movie uncovers an astonishing clip of a prerecorded TV address by President Nixon to the nation in case the astronauts were unable to leave the lunar surface. The music from Philip Sheppard, which underscores the great space footage, is just right from popular to classical notes.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON
A ThinkFilm, Discovery Films and Film 4 presentation in association with Dox Prods. and Passion Pictures
Director: David Sington
Producer: Duncan Copp
Executive producers: Simon Andreae, John Battsek, Julie Goldman, Louisa Bolch, Hamish Mykura, David McNab, Billy Campbell, Andrea Meditch, Jane Root, Jeff Haslet
Director of photography: Clive North
Music: Philip Sheppard
Co-producer/assistant director: Christopher Riley
Editor: David Fairhead
Running time — 100 minutes
MPAA rating PG