Commensurate with His Capacity for Wonder
In the Shadow of the Moon is a rare documentary that is not cutesy or narrated by stars. Its full orchestra-and-choir music by Philip Sheppard is stirring without lapsing into overblown; the topic is not once again man’s current wars on other men or on planet Earth; and the movie comes across as “uplifting,” “feel-good,” “awe-inspiring” without stooping to the blurb-clichés such have become.
Director David Sington’s first professional theatrical release after twenty years’ science documentary work for U.K. and U.S. television, the film treats a little more than a decade of relatively recent history, connected and commented on now by ten of those intimately involved and also shadow-colored by the absence of three who died in an accident back then, three others who have died since, and, most of all, that of far the most famous and reclusive of them all, Neil Armstrong.
Of course, that last name gives it away, bringing back the giant step for mankind on the Sea of Tranquility. It reminds us of wherever we were on July 21 of 1969, watching on whatever screen anywhere, as the film also sidesteps to celebrations all over the world. As an aura around its center, it also recalls the Cold War space race, the “vigah” and vision of a then still-unquestioned JFK, the momentarily healing unification of this nation after the disastrous ‘60s, indeed the drawing together of all men of all nations in wonder, perhaps for the last time in history, at human achievement and the physical and metaphysical grandeur of the heavens.
Extreme close-up observations of ten Apollo Program astronauts -- no obtrusive voiced questions or backdrops -- are the connective tissue and a major thread here. Some walked on the moon, some hovered above in command modules, and some equally celebrated for not reaching the destination at all. In their seventies, they come to us vigorous, astute, humorous, and still marveling at the experience and the aftermath.
Referring time and again to the teamwork among themselves, NASA, Mission Control, scientists, engineers and ground technicians, these men are humble, thankful they were chosen, sometimes writing individual success down to sheer luck. Initial and then intermittent printed titles identify speakers, but, appropriate for the all-for-one-one-for-all emphasis.
Modest about their global status as heroes when that accolade was not so easily bandied about, they express as much as possible the exhilaration, the worry (more than fear), the sheer boyish joy of walking on the Moon, the two-tone beauty of that satellite and the blue-white-and-brown splendor of Earth rising against a black sky. Travel adds perspective to views of home; from their unique perspective and without today’s ecological pleading, they muse about the perils and fragility of our home planet. At least one of them has turned increasingly Christian, while another speaks more largely, not of institutional religion or its God, but of Spirit beyond theology or technology.
Concurrently with the national pride and universal hope on the one hand, and the participants themselves on the other, the third, shining star is the 16mm historical footage, the bulk of it never shown publicly until now, some never even developed, mostly sitting in canned cold storage for near on forty years. Serendipitously in the process of redoing the many miles of film onto hi-def video, NASA agreed to furnish Sington and his British crew with copies. Since nearly all of it was mute, the production involved, among other tasks, laboriously synchronizing the visual of prints with the aural of flight controllers’ loops.
Scratches, circles, reel numberings and all, the sequences on full screen are awesome, akin to and yet beyond what then-innovative Star Wars technical achievement inspired exactly thirty years ago. Weaned on computer and video-game effects, virtual reality over the real thing, the two sated generations since then will ho-hum at In the Shadow of the Moon. But those old enough to remember optimism and expectancy, and to retain the child’s wonder at the authentic universe, will find inspiration here or, better, re-inspiration. With the 1972 launch, landing and return of Apollo 17, the program was terminated, a victim of priorities.
But what a time it was, and perhaps again may be.
(Released by ThinkFilm and rated “PG” for mild language, brief violent images, and incidental smoking.)