In the Shadow of the Moon is a documentary on a topic that seems hard to screw up. The wealth of NASA imagery featured in the movie (some familiar, most rarely-seen) guarantees a fair share of mesmerizing shots. And the specific collection of talking heads (including surviving veterans of the moon missions, Neil Armstrong excluded) ensures that interesting stories will be spun. But these admissions aren’t meant to diminish the movie’s achievements. Director David Sington and editor David Fairhead have assembled a huge assortment of footage into one of the finer examples of documentary montage editing in recent years. Cutting from moment to moment with finesse, the filmmakers gracefully build the tale’s first two-thirds from the fledgling days of the Apollo program to the first arrival of men on the moon. It’s an inspiring spectacle.
The mere sight of a rocket blasting off—the letters “USA” sliding past the camera in slow motion—taps great wells of emotion, because the image is at once familiar and alien. At the screening I attended, when one of the astronauts says, “America made bold choices then,” a little sigh rippled through the audience. Yes, we did—and to its credit, the movie resists the urge to ask if we make similarly bold choices now.
In today’s political climate, it initially seems odd to encounter a film that depicts America as positively as this one. But In the Shadow of the Moon is less pro-America than pro-the ideal of America that many of us carry in our hearts (as Bruce Springsteen might say). And it’s less beholden to the idea that only the United States could have accomplished this than many viewers might like it to be. The film’s attitude is more like, “The moon has always been there; people would have gone there eventually, and those people just happened to be the men of the Apollo program.”
There are missteps. Shadow glosses over the fact that all of the moon voyagers were white men, mostly disposing of the civil rights and feminist movements in an early montage (at least there’s no clumsy attempt to tie in the moon missions in with greater social freedoms). The film’s early accounts of JFK’s assassination and Vietnam feel obligatory, though the latter leads to the intriguing revelation that the astronauts felt some guilt over not serving as pilots in the war. The score grates and grows too majestic, and Sington is too enamored with close-ups of the elderly astronauts’ eyes. And the movie’s final leg is sadly perfunctory, trying to squeeze another five moon landings and the Apollo 13 mission into a half-hour or so. The Apollo 13 story is especially compressed; yes, we’ve all seen the Ron Howard movie, but it still would have been nice to hear more of what the survivors had to say. (The latter is the only section that suggests the project might have benefited from being a television miniseries.) But for the most part, the film manages to be inspirational but not cloying or corny.
Those seeking details of marriages crumbling beneath professional stain or firsthand accounts of the parties Tom Wolfe described in The Right Stuff will be disappointed. But the interviews offer a different sort of intimacy—revealing, for example, just how much of a nerd Buzz Aldrin was, and how unimpressed the astronauts’ children were with their accomplishments. The interviews move easily from personal reminiscence to practical details about the process of getting to the moon to borderline profound thoughts on humanity’s place in the cosmos. The film even finds time to point out that Armstrong’s status as the first man on the moon made him even more of a recluse than he was before.
The documentary begins with John F. Kennedy’s declaration that the U.S. would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, then speeds through the research and development of the machines that would accomplish that goal. There are frightening glimpses of how badly things often went before Apollo—especially a botched 1967 launch simulation that claimed the lives of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chafee. Then comes the film’s meatiest portion—the story of how Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins went from Earth to the moon, with recollections from the other astronauts mixed in. This section includes a lot of information that was new to me—for instance, the fact that Apollos 11, 12 and 13 were scheduled so closely together so the U.S. would have three shots at landing on the moon in 1969.
The middle section encompasses the launch itself, the initial orbit of the Earth, the voyage to the moon and the landing on its surface. It’s spellbinding. Much of the footage is familiar (Armstrong’s first moon walk, for example), but what makes this section work so well is how perfectly and majestically it builds, always darting right up to the point where it might overplay its hand, then resisting the temptation. Its most striking characteristic is its willingness to hold on seemingly mundane shots (a booster falling to Earth after decoupling from the main spacecraft) until they seem poetic. The entire movie benefits from the NASA’s incidentally artistic footage. Shots of the first fires of liftoff licking the edge of the frame and then billowing across it, or of the Earth’s gentle curve sweeping around, are like abstract paintings in motion. Many of these images are deployed merely to illustrate the astronauts’ comments (I especially loved Collins’ thoughts on what it was like to be alone in the spacecraft on the dark side of the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin were in sunlight). But they’re so beautiful that they seem to stand for something beyond their content.
Making a film about a historical moment as recalled by the men who lived it is always a treacherous undertaking. (For an example of a documentary that overdoes it, check out Ken Burns’ The War, which is effective in small doses but inclined to overstate its case.) Shadow isn’t flawless, but it’s a mostly clear-eyed look back at a time of bold choices. The best romantic fiction captures an ideal of the way we want the world to be; what’s remarkable about Shadow is that, romantic as it is, it captures a moment in time when the world really was all that it hoped it could be—when, for 15 minutes, things stopped, and everybody looked up.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.