ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms
Movies21 Oct 2007

Last night we went to see In the Shadow of the Moon, a new documentary on the Apollo program that mixes restored NASA archival footage with close-ups of ten surviving lunar astronauts speaking into the camera.

At first I was actually a little disappointed because I didn’t learn much from the movie that I didn’t already know, but then I realized relating the trivia of Apollo isn’t really the film’s aim. It is different from the usual take on Apollo in that doesn’t focus as much on the technical details, or give a blow-by-blow account of the missions, or catalog the various funny/interesting/dangerous episodes that happened along the way. Instead it’s much more about what going to the moon meant to the men who went there.

Notably absent from the film is Neil Armstrong, who declined to be interviewed (the first man on the moon is somewhat reclusive now). The movie is perhaps better without him, since his absence frees it to focus on the other astronauts who his fame tends to overshadow (I bet if you asked your friends to name some Apollo astronauts, a lot of them would come up with “Neil Armstrong” and then draw a blank…). Still, he is by no means missing: the bulk of the screen time goes to his Apollo 11 crew-mates Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, as well as 13′s Jim Lovell, and 12′s Alan Bean, all of whom discuss Armstrong at length. The portrait that emerges is of a man who really embodied the “Right Stuff”: very smart, highly skilled, without ego, and the ultimate Mr. cool under pressure. This is a guy who remained unflappable while getting shot down in Vietnam, saving an out-of-control Gemini module, avoiding death by a half-second when bailing out of a lunar-landing trainer, accidental chopping off his finger working on his farm (it was re-attached), and, not least, being the first guy to land on the moon (his wikipedia entry is pretty decent and full of anecdotes—for example, the one time he few with Chuck Yeager they crash-landed). I will confess that I’ve never been a big Armstrong “fan” (maybe because he gets all the attention), but this movie changed my perception of him.

It’s a little strange to see those men, who in their prime must have seemed immortal, in their old age, but even in their 70s, they all seem sharp and energetic and and retain something of their heroic youth. Buzz Aldrin is quite vital at age 77, and Jim Lovell reminded me of a pleasant retired fellow you might meet sitting in front of his trailer in a campground somewhere. I also enjoyed Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 command module pilot. It was nice to hear from him, especially given the tendency to think of the Apollo 11 crew as “Armstrong, Aldrin, and that other guy who didn’t walk on the moon”.

Some of the NASA footage is amazing. There’s a slow-motion close-up of a Saturn V rocket launch at the beginning of the movie that gave me goosebumps. There was also a fair bit I hadn’t seen before, including some cool footage from a camera mounted on the front of the Apollo 17 rover as it bounces across the lunar surface (Schmidt: “It was a bit of a wild ride even for Mr. Test Pilot Cernan”). Perhaps my favorite was an extended shot looking down at the surface as Apollo 11 leaves the moon. As the view unfolds you can see the trails in the regolith that the astronauts made as the moved around the landing site, like tracks in the snow.

If the film hadn’t touched on the “moon landing was faked” conspiracy theories at all, that would have perhaps been better, but the way they addressed it, by including several short clips of the astronauts scoffing at the notion into the closing credits, was fitting. The best line (I forget from who, Collins?): “We went to the moon nine times. Why did we need to fake it nine times?”

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