The excitement, majesty and extraordinary human accomplishment of the American lunar program of the ’60s and early ’70s is rousingly captured in “In the Shadow of the Moon.” Deftly mixing a treasure trove of archival footage with engaging commentaries of surviving astronauts from all nine Apollo moonshots, this British production will bring it all back for those with first-hand memories of the time, while providing a stimulating primer for younger generations. Astute handling could generate a nice theatrical run for this Sundance audience award-winner in the current docu-friendly market, while the sky’s the limit in television, educational and DVD incarnations.
First remarkable aspect of David Sington’s film is that it’s never been done before. The U.S. space program and other aspects of the topic have been dealt with in numerous ways, including dramatically (“The Right Stuff,” “Apollo 13,” HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon”). But while it naturally sketches in the Cold War origins of the race to the moon and uses as a springboard JFK’s inspiring 1961 speech dedicating the country to reaching the moon before the ’60s were out, the pic achieves its focus by concentrating specifically on the Apollo program itself.
Another important point is that, technically, the pic possesses a visual and audio vibrancy that allows it to play well today. Producers went back to the original NASA film cans, found some material never used before and remastered everything, meaning that the mostly color footage looks as good as new. HD-shot interviews with the now-aging but often articulate space travelers also looks sharp.
Sington skips over technological aspects confronting scientists working on a ferociously competitive deadline, just as he ignores budgetary issues, choosing instead to exclusively spotlight the men who actually traveled the 240,000 miles each way in the cramped three-man Apollo capsules.
They are a lively, thoughtful, impressive bunch, by and large; Some are more macho, others humorous or self-deprecating. But to a man, they possess something in common that sets them apart — a humbled, philosophical side that, whether they state it or not, came from journeying to another world and seeing our own from afar. One can sense that they are changed men for having done what they did — 24 men have traveled to the moon, and only 12 have ever walked on the surface — and this sense of a special perspective comes through clearly if uninsistently.
Backed by endlessly wonderful archival footage, the fliers themselves recount their selection process, their training and the setbacks, most notably the tragic 1967 fire during a simulated countdown that killed three astronauts; it’s a wonder the program continued apace in its wake.
Informed by the CIA that the Russians were getting close to putting a spacecraft into lunar orbit, the U.S. moved quickly to send Apollo 8 around the moon at Christmas, 1968. After two more test flights, it was time for the real thing, and NASA gave itself a window for three attempts at a moon landing in the second half of 1969. Fortunately, the first one worked, and Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon on July 21.
(The reclusive Armstrong is not among those interviewed, although others salute him for being the coolest of them all under pressure, and the pic includes a very amusing pre-moonshot excerpt from the TV gameshow “I’ve Got A Secret” featuring the space pioneer’s parents.)
Aside from the great footage of the flights and moonwalks themselves, the pic makes a point of showing the elated international reactions to this “one giant step for mankind.” Docu material from all around the non-communist world shows people thrilled about the accomplishment, and the film’s implicit comment is that, despite concurrent events in Vietnam, this was when global regard for the United States was at its highest level. Looking at it another way, one of the astronauts states that, when he and his colleagues say “we” went to the moon, they don’t mean just them personally or the U.S. as a nation, but all of humanity.
The near-tragedy of Apollo 13 the following year is given a once-over, and there were four more visits after that before man departed the moon for the last time in December 1972, not having yet returned.
The overwhelming perspective of the moon voyagers is that, from above, Earth looks like a serene but fragile bastion of life hanging in space, a unique oasis in what otherwise appears to be a void. Any film that can remind viewers of this unique viewpoint, witnessed firsthand by so few, would always seem welcome.