By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 11, 2007
“Awesome”—in every sense of the word—is the best way to describe “In the Shadow of the Moon,” the new documentary about the Apollo space missions directed by David Sington.
“In the Shadow of the Moon” is structured around interviews with several Apollo astronauts. The filmmakers illustrate the astronauts’ stories with archival footage from NASA, including many images never before seen. The result is a fascinating, often moving, look at a unique period in American history.
In 1961, newly elected president John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to put a man on the moon within the decade. NASA put great effort into meeting this challenge, and in July of 1969 they succeeded as Apollo 11 touched down on the moon and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on another world. Between 1969 and 1972, the program boasted six successful moon landings and made the handful of men who participated national heroes.
The film groups all of the missions together, basically telling the story of the program’s inception and development, then describing the first Apollo landing while interspersing this with comments on other missions. This is an efficient and dramatic way to handle the narrative, but more details about later missions would have been welcome.
“In the Shadow of the Moon” makes the most of interviews with Apollo 11 astronauts Aldrin and Michael Collins. Aldrin has an expansive and candid personality, and one of the most memorable moments of the film comes as he describes his actions right before he stepped onto the moon while we see the footage. Collins injects much humor into his interview and gives a moving description of what it was like to be alone in the Command Module above the moon as Aldrin and Armstrong were making history on the lunar surface. Unfortunately, Armstrong did not participate in this project.
In total, the filmmakers also talked to 10 of the astronauts who manned Apollo missions, and they are remarkable for their eloquence and humility. Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean makes the point that the moment they were chosen for the program, they became national heroes for, as he says, doing nothing. Several of the men discuss the instant fame and adulation as something they felt they had to live up to, and the film makes it clear that they did that admirably, even if the astronauts themselves downplay their heroism. When asked if the missions scared them, none of the men admit to fear, though some of them do address the many things that could have gone wrong. Collins, for example, makes the distinction between “fear” and “worry,” saying that he was not afraid but did have a healthy worry at each stage of the mission.
Many things could, and did, go wrong in this highly experimental and dangerous endeavor. The astronauts soberly describe the fire that killed three astronauts during training and fears for the future of the program after the tragedy. Hearing Jim Lovell describe the well-known difficulties experienced by Apollo 13 on their aborted mission is fascinating.
The men also describe a spiritual aspect to their missions. Many of them testify to a deeper belief in God or some kind of higher power as a result of their experiences, and they all describe feeling closer to humanity. As they describe seeing Earth from space, each of the different descriptions has a similar feeling of awe and wonder.
In addition to the fascinating interviews, “In the Shadow of the Moon” boasts amazing footage. NASA gave access to remarkable footage shot throughout the program. In addition to jaw-droppingly beautiful pictures taken of the Earth and the moon, the film utilizes candid footage from the command modules and behind-the-scenes shots taken during development and training. The filmmakers stress the valuable role that the astronauts played, not just on the missions but also during the design phase of the project.
The Apollo project spanned the 1960s and the early 1970s, which was, of course, a very turbulent time in American history. “In the Shadow of the Moon” also explores the impact the Apollo missions had on society. From the Kennedy and King assassinations to the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War, America was at the center of many controversies during that decade. The film portrays the Apollo missions, especially Apollo 11, as something positive in a troubled time. Astronaut Gene Cernan describes feeling guilty that he was not fighting in Vietnam at the time but then says that his friends who did serve in the war told him that he was doing something possibly more important for the country, something in which Americans could take unadulterated pride.
In fact, Collins points out that, for a brief moment, the Apollo project brought the whole world together. He describes how people all over the world responded to the Apollo 11 astronauts with pride in the accomplishment.
In the film, the moment when Armstrong and Aldrin finally land on the moon is both triumphant and touching, and the footage of people’s response, the millions of people all around the world who watched the moment that they set foot on the lunar surface via television, gives a stirring sense of mankind celebrating a stunning achievement.
At the end of “In the Shadow of the Moon,” Sington makes the point that no more manned flights to the moon took place after the Apollo missions. Coupled with some somber warnings about the changes taking place in the Earth’s environment, it is a cautionary comparison, not just of the space program then and now, but of how the national psyche has changed. “In the Shadow of the Moon” celebrates the Apollo astronauts and scientists as pioneers and innovators and makes a strong case for the program as a giant leap indeed for mankind.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.