Review: In The Shadow of the Moon (Sington, 2007)

My recent flurry of NASA-related posts have been inspired by this great little documentary about the history of the Apollo program.

Maybe I am more than a little behind the times, but I am still not entirely convinced by the need for documentaries getting cinematic releases. Perhaps my doubts are at least partially raised by the horrific sight of large posters advertising Michael Moore’s new gurn-fest, Sicko, featuring the rotund shyster brandishing a rather menacing rubber glove. One can’t help but feel that he, as well as fellow shock-doc manufacturer Nick Broomfield (another pet hate of mine, i’m afraid) are responsible for this new wave of ‘factual’ content breaking through the cinema doors.

This reservation aside, the other problem I have is that many of these documentaries are simply not cinematic. More worthy efforts such as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and No End in Sight are fine if you were watching them on BBC4 from the comfort of your sofa, but is there any need to pay £6 to see them on a bigger screen with the THX booming in your ears?

Thankfully, with In The Shadow of the Moon, there is no such problem; cinema has always had a fascination with space travel and exploration, thinking in particular of the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it is a subject which lends itself much more naturally to these confines.

The documentary, somewhat inevitably, contextualises the story by beginning with JFK’s speech predicting the USA putting man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Here, and throughout the film, we are given glimpses of the domestic situation America faced in the period: Vietnam, Nixon, various assassinations, the Russians and the Cold War. What is also provided, though, is little glimpses into the popular culture of the time; one particularly funny moment occurs when coverage of the Apollo 11 mission cuts to a rather unsubtle advert for program sponsor Kellogg’s.

Interviews with the astronauts are unfailingly interesting, and they certainly seem to be an articulate, down-to-earth (sorry) bunch. Particularly engaging is Michael Collins, ‘the loneliest man’ as Karl Pilkington would have it, whose dry self-deprecatory sense of humour shines through throughout the film. ‘Mr Rendezvous’ Buzz Aldrin comes across as a complete geek, and one who relieved himself on the ladder down to the moon’s surface at that. There is the notable absence of a certain Neil Armstrong in the interviews, but this is inevitable given his rather reclusive nature.

The astronauts’ varying reactions to their achievements is also interesting; for some it seems to have strengthened their faith, while others seem to have come away with a sense of the Earth’s insignificance and fragility. It is also noteworthy that these men were naturally all pilots in the USAF, and if they weren’t doing what they were doing, they would inevitably have been flying jets over Vietnam – a fact that is easy to forget.

One particularly haunting part of the film is the speech that had been prepared and filmed in advance by President Nixon in case of the eventuality that Armstrong and Aldrin did not make it off the surface of the moon alive, describing their ‘sacrifice’ for scientific endeavour. Michael Collins is typically dry about this: “It’s what any PR man would have written”.

Read the speech is in full here: http://watergate.info/nixon/moon-disaster-speech-1969.shtml

The film could so easily have been an overly-patriotic chest-beating love-in for Uncle Sam, and in the run-up to the first landing we do get a sense that it is a purely American mission. However, after the Apollo 11 astronauts return to earth, there is much footage of the international sense of achievement, reinforcing the idea that, as Neil Armstrong’s words so fittingly implied, this was for all mankind.

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