September 20, 2007

Review: ‘Moon’ Documentary Tingles With Optimism

It may seem hard to remember these days and even harder to believe, but there was a time when the United States seemed united in the spirit of a common goal: rocketing to the moon during the summer of 1969.

Director David Sington's documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon" vividly captures that sense of innocent enthusiasm, an almost tingly feeling of optimism.

The film features all-new interviews with the astronauts themselves, still bright and viable after all these years and full of descriptive stories to tell, as well as never-before-seen footage accompanied by Philip Sheppard's wondrously uplifting score.

These guys are so funny, self-effacing and sometimes even vulnerable, they make you wish you could spend more time listening to their recollections. Among the 10 men we hear from who took part in various voyages, Mike Collins (Apollo 11) says with charming simplicity, "Yeah, it was hard to believe I was actually up there." Meanwhile, Charlie Duke (Apollo 16) adds with a twang: "My son, Tom, was 5 and he didn't think it was any big deal."

But of course it was a big deal, for Americans both as individuals and as participants in a greater cause. Sington touches on the competitive political significance of the space race, but he smartly focuses his film more on how the accomplishments of these men provided inspiration that anything could be possible.

They tinkered and failed and tinkered some more and eventually succeeded. And all the while they were regarded as heroes - the guys with the right stuff.

Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11) recalls those days with an impish twinkle in his eyes, but he also acknowledges the pressure of being revered as one of the first men on the moon: "I have to sort of uphold that image the rest of my life," he says ruefully. And Gene Cernan (Apollo 10 and 17) still looks fit and ready for action today, but admits the guilt he feels decades later about not having gone to Vietnam: "That was my war. ... I've always felt that they fought my war for me."

These are glimpses into their souls we never could have gotten back then, the way their images were carefully controlled. Time and perspective have emboldened them to look straight into the camera and open up, and we're better for it.

Just as moving are the images of space travel themselves, which are at once familiar yet feel fresh and new on the big screen in a theatrical setting. Much of the footage was just sitting there in the NASA library in cans that hadn't been opened in 30 years and since has been re-mastered. (Sington worked with editor David Fairhead to piece the scenes together.)

As Apollo 11 takes off - a slow-motion eruption of metal and noise amid a shower of orange sparks - the vision is so powerful and poetic, it makes you want to cry.

Edgar Mitchell (Apollo 14) waxes philosophical about understanding the oneness of the universe while floating out there in space, while Alan Bean (Apollo 12) says having gone to the moon makes him appreciate the world he lives in, something he does by walking around the mall and getting an ice cream cone.

Both reactions sound just about right.

"In the Shadow of the Moon," a ThinkFilm release, is rated PG for mild language, brief violent images and incidental smoking. Running time: 100 minutes.

Three and a half stars out of four.


Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G - General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.