I have a friend who doesn’t believe that human beings have ever landed on the moon. Like many of the doubters who continue deny mankind’s farthest-reaching achievement, he does so on the basis that the technology was never advanced enough to get us there. I think he’s full of it. But the fact that some actually believe the Apollo missions could never have happened illustrates what an amazing triumph of human ingenuity and determination they really were.
A new documentary called “In The Shadow of the Moon” goes a long way towards explaining what it was like to be in those rickety rockets heading into unexplored space, courtesy of the men who were actually in them. As they stare directly into the camera, director David Sington presents lively first-hand testimony from 10 members of each of the nine U.S. moon missions between 1968 to 1972.
Each one of the crewmembers looks fondly back at their reign as worldwide heroes during the social upheaval of the time, but there is more to the film than nostalgia. Especially moving is the archival footage of citizens of all countries glued to their fuzzy little TV sets, rooting for Americans to take that giant leap for all of mankind. It is a vivid and sad reminder of how things have changed.
Rather than an in-depth political look at what the space program meant then and now, Sington instead concentrates on getting us as close as we’ll ever get to taking the trip ourselves. From preparation and lift-off to moonwalking and re-entry, “In the Shadow of the Moon” simulates one entire journey, with each of the astronauts narrating their own life-changing experiences along the way. Special attention, of course, is given to the first moon landing, making the absence of the reclusive Neil Armstrong distractably apparent.
Much of this material has been covered before, so great care has been taken to unearth previously unseen footage and clean up the scratchy NASA stuff we have seen before. The result is quite breathtaking. Original audio has even been inserted over previously silent 16mm film to put the audience in the control center on the ground. (Through the long and meticulous restoration efforts, the filmmakers somehow never found any shots of men in front of a green screen in a hangar faking a moonwalk! Hmmm…)
For all of the beautiful photography, though, Philip Sheppard’s orchestral score is meddlesome at times. In one scene when an astronaut speaks about the stunning silence of space, the music inexplicably swells. Besides being annoying, it was also unintentionally funny. What a moving moment that could have been without any sound at all. Too many filmmakers forget how powerful absolute silence can be.
There is plenty of time for viewers assign their own meaning to these images taken millions of miles above the planet. In a move typical of so many films, “In the Shadow of the Moon” feels the need to explain everything for us—so we get testimonials to Christianity and environmental platitudes from the astronauts. While it is interesting to hear what the men who were there felt at the time, it also disrupted my own feelings. Maybe it would have been better suited earlier in the film. It may not even have seemed like such a “final word” moment if it wasn’t at the end.