Monday, October 01, 2007

In the Shadow of the Moon

Director: David Sington
Producer: Duncan Copp
Starring: Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Eugene Cernan, Michael Collins, Jim Lovell, Edgar D. Mitchell, Harrison Schmitt, Dave Scott, John Young
MPAA Rating: PG
Running time: 100 min
read my spoiler disclaimer

reviewed by Andrew James
     I've said for a long time that the Jim Lovell commentary track on Ron Howard's Apollo 13 is my favorite commentary of all time. To see the story in front of your eyes, but with the real guy giving his take on how it really went down makes me feel like a kid on Grandpa's lap listening to yarns of yesteryear. With In the Shadow of the Moon, that same feeling is there, but taken to a whole new level of emotion, pride and wonder.

      Mostly a talking head style documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon also infuses archival footage of the entire Apollo lunar missions throughout its short but illustrious commision. Most of the footage I had never seen before which makes it all the more wondrous; but even the footage I'd seen a million times was much more impactful and heartfelt with the way in which it was built up and described by the guys who actually took part in the missions.

      What makes this "story" special, is the global context of the time period in which it took place. The film takes its time setting up the culture and circumstances in world politics and social climate. With The Vietnam Conflict, three major assassinations, the difficulty surrounding the civil rights movement, Watergate, the Cuban missile crisis, etc., America really needed something to boost its morale and pride. Kennedy's challenge and goal was the spark that brought us out of a nearly ten year long funk.

      Once the context is set, most of the picture revolves around the first mission to the moon, Apollo 8 - which served just to orbit the moon before the Russians did. Watching the archival footage of the tribulations and failures NASA continually endured was nearly fantastic as seeing their resolve, picking themselves up, dusting off the knees and trying again. Until finally a successful liftoff and a trip to the moon.

      After the first liftoff has occurred it is an undescribable treat watching the footage within the space capsule of the astronauts and their Earth as it slowly shrinks to the size of a grape in the distance. Hearing the men give their thoughts on the experience is told like no narrator could ever pull off. The only ones who can tell this story properly are those who were there.

      The film then focusses heavily on world opinion and sense of accomplishment for all of humanity. We realize, although it's a very patriotic film as well, that it wasn't America that accomplished this seemingly impossible task - it was the human race that accomplished it. Archival footage from all across the globe of people hearing about the event and watching it on their television sets is unbelievably moving. A sea of people in Times Square all staring at the "jumbo-tron" with huge smiles is something we don't often see. A shot of a major league baseball game literally stopping in the middle of a play to rejoice at the news that we had done the impossible. You can feel the sense of wonder and joy even now, almost forty years later. The man in the row in front of us was tearing up pretty good. I have to admit a little lump might've been in my throat as well.

      Part of the key to enjoying this film, at least for me, was trying to put myself in the astronauts boots. With the larger than life images on that big screen and hearing their wisdom spoken while imagining yourself in a tiny capsule made of tin foil while orbiting the dark side of the moon, it's easy to feel at least a fraction of the danger, the wonder and anticipation that these men must've felt.

      Even knowing how each scenario will end up, the drama and intensity that is built up almost makes this doc feel like a narrative style, feature film. Will the boosters fire correctly? Will the lunar module hit the giant boulders going too fast? Will that one tiny motor fire correctly enabling the men to escape the moon's small gravity or will they be marooned there forever? These are all topics covered, including the alternate presidential speech should these things happen; and although we know the outcome, there is still that small, lingering fear in the back of the mind that it might end up disastrously.

      There are a couple of minor weaknesses. One, and most noticeable is the absense of Neil Armstrong, who apparently is a notorious recluse and steers clear of any publicity or cameras. Understandable; although still a real shame. His take on the subject could've catapulted this film to not only one of the better documentaries I've seen, but hoisted it above and beyond as a true event and something no one else has really accomplished.

      The other complaint is the sort of afterthought to include the later Apollo missions. There is some neat footage included, but it felt cheated and short changed. The debacle of Apollo 13 was literally only mentioned for about three minutes and then the film moves on quickly to the remaining missions before ending with the astronuats final thoughts on what the entire Apollo project meant. Had it gone deeper into these aspects the movie might've gone on for hours and to tell the truth, it felt a little long already. So I wish they had sort of skipped that aspect and stuck with the first two missions. Though admittedly, this would also be hard to do as all of the surviving Apollo astronauts gave their time for this documentary and to not address their missions would also be unfair.

      If space travel and the moon landings are subjects that intrigue you, or you have a deep sense of American patriotism or even just want to hear a true-life, inspirational and indeed emotional tale from the guys who lived it in a time that really needed said tale, you can't find a better picture than In the Shadow of the Moon. Everyone should see this; if they did, the world would be a better place. It's an Oscar nomination waiting to happen and is truly out of this world.

Click "play" to see the trailer:

IMDb profile - full cast and crew
Official Site
Flixster Profile for In the Shadow of the Moon

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