In the Shadow of the Moon

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In the Shadow of the Moon

Astronauts tell story of Apollo project with renewed enthusiasm

DVD Release Date: Feb. 12
Director: David Sington
Cinematographer: Clive North
Starring: Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Michael Collins, Charlie Duke, Jim Lovell
Studio/Run Time: ThinkFilm, 100 mins.

I walked across the Purdue University campus one day in 1993, headed toward some lecture or quiz or lab that in retrospect seems unimportant,

because assembled at that moment on the grassy lawn outside of University Hall was a mass of students and faculty waiting in the sun to hear Neil Armstrong speak. But with two roommates majoring in aeronautical engineering, I’d had my ?ll of space talk—and there was that class—so I passed up the chance to see this most famous alumnus in person.

Years later, I concluded that this decision showed a remarkable lack of maturity. Test, schmest. If there’s one person who has lived in the shadow of the moon, it’s the famously reserved—if not downright reclusive—Armstrong. He makes the occasional low-key speech, but so profound is his denial of the spotlight that David Sington’s new documentary about the Apollo project—in which astronaut after elderly astronaut steps up to the camera with a twinkle in his eye to tell his amazing story—includes nary a peep from Armstrong’s contemporary voice. It seems that he’s already said everything he has to say to the world at large, and he said it on the freaking moon.

You’d think this ?lm would underscore my regret, but instead it ?ipped it upside down. Melville told the story of Moby Dick not through Ahab but through Ishmael. Conan Doyle told the tales of Sherlock Holmes through Dr. Watson. And In the Shadow of the Moon reveals that the most engrossing storyteller of this ensemble of astronauts is not the ?rst or second or even 10th man on the moon, but a man named Mike Collins, the Ishmael to so many Ahabs, the astronaut who stayed aboard the spacecraft while his more famous crewmates, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, roamed the surface of the white whale. If the whole experience has weighed heavily on Armstrong, it seems to have left Collins free to be self-deprecating and casually poetic. He’s the everyman in space, able both to express the gee-whiz wonder of humans in orbit but also cut through the New Age pixie dust with wit.

He sums up JFK’s 1961 mandate like this: “Do what? Moon! When? End of the decade!” Roger that. And he jokes about having been called the loneliest man in the universe as he sailed around the dark side of the moon by himself. “Baloney,” he says. “I had mission control yakking in my ear half the time.”

In the Shadow of the Moon functions as a more concrete companion to ethereal ?lms like For All Mankind (1989), which conjure the unfathomable by setting NASA footage to Brian Eno music. Sington uses plenty of NASA footage himself, but this ?lm’s notable feature is the extensive array of new interviews. This is the trip to the moon as told exclusively by the travelers themselves, now old men but with their vivid, informative and entertaining memories still intact—memories that, together, tell a story you wouldn’t think needs retelling. It’s iconic Americana, and we’ve been celebrating what may be one of Humankind’s most arbitrary accomplishments since the day it happened. But it never hurts to be reminded of our potential and our insigni?cance, and who better to do the reminding than clean-cut American boys who have covered up the entire world with their thumb—people like Collins, Aldrin, Alan Bean and Jim Lovell?

Not Armstrong, of course, but his absence is also a part of this story.

Stylistically, Shadow is simple and utilitarian, like something you’d see on PBS. No wonder: Sington has written, produced and directed several episodes of Nova. But like the men it’s about, this ?lm obtains all of its sizzle from the awesomeness of the experience. Before they were shot into space, not one of these guys was destined to write a treatise on human existence, and no talking-head-driven, by-the-numbers documentary deserves to soar. And yet there, waxing eloquent, go the astronauts. And there, across the sky, arcs this plain-Jane motion picture, and together they leave a surprisingly magni?cent vapor trail.