In the Shadow of the Moon (United Kingdom/United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There have been countless movies reflecting upon life in the 1960s. Most of those focus on the hippie movement, the civil rights explosion, and Vietnam. In the Shadow of the Moon reminds us that the '60s and early '70s weren't all gloom and unrest. There were other things out there besides the Cuban Missile Crisis, three prominent assassinations, and Watergate. In fact, there was one event during the turbulent period that brought humanity together across the globe, and it had to do with something that was literally out of this world.

In the Shadow of the Moon provides an overview of the Apollo space program. Given the constraints of a 100 minute running time, it can do little more than offer a primer; as such, it can't be considered the "definitive" documentary on the subject. But there is one thing David Sington's movie can boast that no previous feature claims: interviews with all of the surviving Apollo astronauts (except the notoriously reclusive Neil Armstrong, who shies away from cameras and tape recorders). This transforms the movie from a dry chronological account (which would have been fascinating in its own right) to something with life and color. We recognize what going to the moon meant for those who remained on Earth. Now we hear what it signified to those who were up there.

The approach of director Sington is straightforward. He doesn't try to do anything radical or surprising with the subject matter. In the Shadow of the Moon is essentially a mix of talking heads and archival footage (much of which has been cleaned up and transferred to high def media for this film). For the news footage, Sington relies primarily on CBS's coverage. Back in the '60s and '70s, Walter Cronkite was the voice of news; most Americans who lived through that era associate Cronkite with all of the big stories. ("And that's the way it is…")

The majority of the production concentrates on three of the Apollo missions: Apollo 8, which was the first manned flight to orbit the moon; Apollo 11, which carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (along with command module pilot Michael Collins) to their rendezvous with history; and Apollo 13, the only one of the seven planned moon missions that never made it there. Not surprisingly, the lion's share of the screen time is devoted to Apollo 11 and the interviews with Aldrin and Collins are more extensive than those with the other astronauts. Among other things, In the Shadow of the Moon reveals that Collins did not feel slighted by being left alone in the command module. In fact, he found the experience to be "exhilarating." And Aldrin didn't mind missing out on the notoriety of being the first human being to set foot on a heavenly body.

In the Shadow of the Moon doesn't entirely neglect the rest of the Apollo program. It mentions how Kennedy's famous speech about putting a man on the moon and bringing him home safely before the end of the decade shifted the space race into another gear. It recounts how the cockpit fire in Apollo 1 killed the three man crew of Gus Grisson, Ed White, and Roger Chafee. And it provides footage taken by the crewmembers of the "later" Apollo missions: 14, 15, 16, and 17. By the time of the final manned moon mission, in December 1972, the trips had lost their public allure. That which had enraptured the world three and one-half years earlier no longer warranted a live television broadcast.

In the Shadow of the Moon successfully recaptures the feeling of what made the Apollo missions so special. Many of those involved still invoke terms like "magic" in discussing the alchemy that allowed men to reach the moon and survive to tell the tale. It has been 35 years since anyone walked on the moon and will be at least another decade before the next person does so. It's difficult in today's world to conceive how driven the men of NASA were to get the project off the ground in such a short period of time. All this was accomplished with the most primitive of computers and machinery that's nowhere near as precise as what we have at our disposal today. The more one considers the Apollo missions, the more amazing they seem. Invoking that sense of amazement is what In the Shadow of the Moon accomplishes. Yet there's more to the film than nostalgia; it also offers insight, and that's what makes it worth viewing on the big screen rather than waiting for its Discovery Channel premiere.

In the Shadow of the Moon (United Kingdom/United States, 2007)

Director: David Sington
Cast: Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, Jim Lovell, Alan Bean, Eugene Cernan, Edgar Mitchell, Dave Scott, John Young, Harrison Schmitt
Cinematography: Clive North
Music: Philip Sheppard
U.S. Distributor: ThinkFilm
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2007-09-14
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1