David Sington's new documentary In the Shadow of the Moon has a hook as simple as it is effective: Ask the surviving Apollo astronauts about their experiences. Combining new interviews with archival footage -- from NASA and other sources -- In the Shadow of the Moon's both transcendently beautiful and impressively down-to-earth. The footage of the moon missions -- some of it never seen before -- is both beautiful and magnificent; the interviews with the astronauts (with the notable absence of Neil Armstrong) are human and humble. There are no interviews with cultural commentators or scientists or NASA administrators -- just the small group of men who've been to our nearest celestial neighbor: This is who we are; this is what we did.
Sington's written and directed science-based material for TV, but In the Shadow of the Moon isn't just a TV piece writ large on the big screen; it's cinematic in scope, style and execution. In many ways, the difficulty with a documentary like In the Shadow of the Moon isn't finding archival material but rather trying to whittle a colossal mass of material down into a coherent, comprehensible size. Sington's editing team turns the hours and hours of archival and news footage about the moon missions and manages to condense them into a 100-minute story of wonder and adventure.
And yet, In the Shadow of the Moon doesn't depict the moon missions and the men who took them in isolation. Sington puts the moon missions in an appropriate historical context -- how they were part of Cold War posturing on an international level, how they were occurring at a time of change and turmoil domestically. And both are conveyed with a minimum of cliché or familiarity; In the Shadow of the Moon contrasts American news reports and Soviet propaganda with a sense of humor -- our news brought to you by Kellogg's, Soviet footage full of bulky grandeur -- that cuts to the heart of the differences between the opposite sides of the Cold War. And In the Shadow of the Moon also moves swiftly past the obligatory '60s shots -- boys with rifles in the jungles of Asia juxtaposed with hippies in the streets of San Francisco and marchers on the streets of Washington and Mississippi -- and then surpasses them. One of the Apollo astronauts explains that as Vietnam raged, he felt a sort of obligation -- an understanding that if he wasn't tasked to the moon program, he'd be flying combat missions -- and that he had to do his job as well he could while his fellow airmen were trying to do theirs, that his risks were great but nothing compared those faced by his fellow aviators.
It's that sort of human touch that makes In the Shadow of the Moon so riveting -- as majestic as all the space-shot footage and moon-roving clips are, it's the astronauts human stories that are truly moving, and more often than not, fairly funny. We hear how the capsule fire that killed the crew of Apollo 1 struck the team like a blow; the challenges and minor indignities of space flight are brought to life when another astronaut explains that yes, in the footage we're seeing of him about to step on the moon, right at that moment, he took a pee break in his suit. ...
And while the Apollo astronauts seem remarkably similar - they've all got that 'Right Stuff' drawl and laid-back but courtly manner -- they're also very different. Some relate the spiritual journeys that many of them began after their moon missions -- or, as one puts it, "My walk on the moon was just for a few days; my walk with Jesus has been going on my whole life. ..." And there are even unexpected and unseen moments from the missions themselves -- we get to see, for example, the prepared speech recorded by Richard Nixon in the event that the lunar landing module for Apollo 11 were somehow unable to take off from the surface. ...
There's an exalted-yet-everyday tone to In the Shadow of the Moon -- the astronauts are presented as everyday heroes, their mighty accomplishments representing the work of many. In our computer-aided age, it's a bit startling to see footage of balsa-wood miniatures being made as preliminary designs for vehicles designed to take on the harsh void of space, and stunning to realize that you and I probably have more raw computing power in our cell phones than there was onboard the entire Apollo 11 craft.
In the Shadow of the Moon strikes the same wistful tone as Ron Howard's Apollo 13 -- we went to the moon in the '70s, and we've yet to go back -- but it doesn't make much of an argument for returning beyond the misty-eyed call of nostalgia and wonder. I would have enjoyed a digression on how the moon program's efforts improved technology for everyone -- better computing, materials fabrication and more -- but that's not necessarily something for the Apollo team to articulate. Instead, we get their stories, their feelings, their motivations -- and a glimpse of the people behind one of humanity's greater moments. In the Shadow of the Moon shows the people behind progress, the faces behind legend and in doing so manages to make the human exploration of space more majestic by rendering it more human. In the Shadow of the Moon is one of the best science documentaries in recent memory, and also much more.