“In the Shadow of the Moon” revisits the epic achievement of landing on the moon and, in one of most effective uses of the talking head ever applied to celluloid, presents this triumph through the stories of, simply, ahandful of men who made the journey. What results, courtesy of director David Sington and his cast of space pioneers, is a nugget-packed documentary about the lunar missions and an affecting reminder that, just decades ago, the United States inspired the world, and the space program truly meant something.
Only 12 people have set foot on another celestial body, and we meet some of them, along with some who accompanied them into space, in this chronicle of the quest to reach the moon. Beginning by citing Cold War competition with the Russians, Sington covers the background and specifics of the 17 Apollo moon shots, circa 1968 to 1972. Apollo 11, which, in July 1969, culminated in the first moon walk, is the film’s centerpiece.
Ten former astronauts — Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Mike Collins, Charlie Duke, Jim Lovell, Edgar Mitchell, Harrison Schmitt, Dave Scott and John Young — recall their Apollo adventures, describing big- and small-picture factors ranging from cosmic connection to having the “right stuff.”
Lovell recalls that, for an early-1960s pilot, a rocket gig seemed a “quick way to a short career.” Collins describes how small and “fragile” the earth looked from so far away. Cernan, more darkly, recalls that Gus Grissom — who died in the Apollo 1 launching-pad fire — didn’t complain about problem wiring, fearing he’d be sacked.
Sington also includes a wealth of footage — docking spacecrafts (superb); antiwar protests and other events of a turbulent but exhilarating decade; everyday folks around the world captivated by the moon venture — and notable tidbits. The latter include a speech Richard Nixon would deliver should the Apollo 11 astronauts become stranded on the moon.
The sum total is a stirring look at the astronaut psyche, the moon experience, the pride inspired by the United States prior to its moral nosedive, and the ingredient in the human marrow that impels us to do majestically crazythings like rocket ourselves into the void.
As for shortcomings, the largest is the absence of first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, from the picture (a recluse, he declined to be interviewed), while the most annoying is the grandiose musical score.
In the Shadow of the Moon ***½
With Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Mike Collins, Charlie Duke, Jim Lovell, Edgar Mitchell, Harrison Schmitt, Dave Scott, John Young
Directed by David Sington
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes