In The Shadow Of The Moon

James Wan 22 November 2007

My father was born shortly after the Wright brothers and he could barely believe that I went to the moon, but my son Tom was five and he didn’t think it was any big deal.” David Sington’s award-winning documentary, opening with this amusing declaration by Apollo 16’s Charlie Duke, brings the audience back from our Tom-like complacency to those initial feelings of awe experienced when man first stepped on the moon. The film conveys to the viewer, not only what it felt like to be there at the time, witnessing the landing from our TV sets, but what it felt like to be the one stepping down onto that white jewel in the sky.

Where previous documentaries on the Apollo missions may have looked at the historical context or engineering feats involved, In The Shadow Of The Moon explores the minds of those who actually experienced space travel. In a bid to record the stories and feelings of those astronauts involved in the nine visits to the moon, the film does away with narration and relies solely on the anecdotal lyricism of the American astronauts themselves. Now almost all in their 70’s and all witty, wise and surprisingly self-deprecating, they talk about their individual experiences in revealing detail and with great enthusiasm, giving the audience a warm feeling as if they had been hearing tales from a cheery great-uncle.

As if to capture these unique accounts before it is too late, the film is almost as much a celebration of these lucky septuagenarians as of the moon missions themselves, and the documentary uses their footage intelligently (although some close-up shots when the former space-travellers are not talking do look more like an Age-Concern ad) to reveal personal aspects of the missions never before expressed.

We learn about their constant worry that just one element in the ‘daisy-chain’ might fail; we are told about the underlying guilt they felt at finding fame when their pilot compatriots were on operations in Vietnam; we even hear Buzz Aldrin’s confession of which essential bodily function he carried out as he mysteriously paused on the ladder from the spacecraft to the moon.

Along with the astronauts’ vivid narratives, David Singlton was also able to make full use of remarkable NASA footage taken by the astronauts themselves on their missions and regarded as so precious that the original film reel has had to be stored under liquid nitrogen. Interjecting the commentary are stunning, digitally-remastered shots, never seen since they were archived, that trigger wonder over and over again.

The richness of the materials at the disposal of the filmmaker renders the unrelenting use of sentimentally rousing music quite unnecessary, but thankfully, apart from this, Singlton simply allows everything to speak for itself, presenting an objective and refreshingly vision-free film from which each of us can take what we want.

‘In the Shadow of the Moon’ takes us back into the American psyche in the turbulent 1960’s and right into the minds of the astronauts themselves. Although some missions and critical incidents are skimmed over and although Neil Armstrong characteristically refused to be interviewed and appears only in his former co-workers’ portrayal as a reclusive legend, this is a fantastic documentary and a timely tribute to those who finally achieved the long-shared dream of walking on the moon.

James Wan