In the Shadow of the Moon (2007) dir. David Sington
It’s hard to believe we actually take for granted the fact that we have the ability to go to space. It’s even harder to believe that man has actually set foot on the moon and returned home safely. And even harder to believe that it was done almost 40 years ago! David Sington’s wonderful documentary reminds us of the significance and power of these monumental accomplishments.
“In the Shadow of the Moon” is the definitive Moon documentary. Only 12 men have ever set foot on the moon and Sington has assembled all the living members of this exclusive club, with the conspicuous exception of Neil Armstrong (more on that later). Through a series of modern interviews and archival stock footage Sington gets the first hand account details of the lead up to the Apollo 11 launch and the subsequent missions afterwards from the men who were actually up there.
The film is fascinating because though we know the stories of Apollo 11 and because of the movie, the famed Apollo 13 mission, Sington and his interviewees makes us feel as if we’re hearing it for the first time. Sington is aided by the best stock footage available. Sington scours the archives for the best footage, both seen and unseen from the NASA archives. And though we've seen much of it before, it's still breathtaking. Computer graphics will never compare to the quality of these original 35mm elements of “real space”. When re-mastered and transferred at the highest quality this footage reveals to us, in ways special effects cannot, the awesome power of space, our celestial bodies, and the machinery we've created to get us there.
The viewing experience is enhanced if you can completely submerge yourself in the recounted stories of the astronauts and imagine their experiences as if you were there with them. For example, Buzz Aldrin’s account of seeing the first “Earth-rise” – that is, the Earth rising from behind the moon, which at that point, no other human had ever seen. He describes the sharp blue colour of our planet standing out against the stark blackness of space, which made him appreciate its unique preciousness.
The one (large) omission of the film is the first man to set foot on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, who is still alive but refused to participate. Ironically though, his absence makes the film even more fascinating. The other astronauts who knew him intimately are so reverential of the man he becomes even more iconic than he already is. Armstrong is described as a soft-spoken, humble zen-master – a man with complete unwavering control of his body and emotions. Nothing fazed him. An incident is described during training when an accident happened and Armstrong ejected himself from the lunar module, narrowly avoiding death by mere seconds. Armstrong walked back to base and filed his paperwork at his desk, as if nothing had happened. When his crew mates ask him if he had ejected himself from the exploding module, Armstrong calmly said, “yeah.”
Armstrong’s absence in the film is never explained, but after reading his Wikipedia bio I have come to understand the man and his reasons a little more. After Apollo 11, he retired to consult for NASA, and then became a professor for his alma mater, Purdue. After discovering the memorabilia he had signed for fans over the years was now being sold for thousands of dollars, he stopped giving autographs. He will only use his name, likeness and famous quote for charitable purposes. He once sued Hallmark for using his likeness without his permission and won. He then donated the settlement to his University. He once was in a legal battle with his barber who sold clippings of his hair for $3000. After legal threats the barber donated the money to charity. Armstrong also refuses to publicly support any political party, and is against the notion of the United States as the ‘world’s policeman’. And with regard to the famous “One small step for man” quote, nobody knew he was going to say it. Nobody wrote it for him. It was Armstrong’s words. A truly profound man whose actions speak louder than any words he could say on the subject, and especially on camera.
“In the Shadow of the Moon” is a film about the men who made the journey. It is made relevant today because of its effect on their philosophical outlook on life – not ‘finding religion’ but broadening their perspective of the earth, and their responsibility to the planet as a whole. Enjoy.
“In the Shadow of the Moon” is available on DVD from ThinkFilm.