Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft once said that the terror Pascal felt looking into the “eternal silence” of the night sky was fear of his own shadow. The sense of paltriness and insignificance man feels in the face of the vastness of the universe is itself a mark of his greatness.
Man’s own shadow, as much as the moon’s, lies across In the Shadow of the Moon, David Sington’s moving documentary of the U.S. Apollo program. An eloquent testament to the grandeur of creation as well as man’s unique place in it, In the Shadow of the Moon offers a remarkable look at the history and technology of the Apollo program, but an even more extraordinary glimpse of the men who lived it and made it happen.
Ten of the eleven surviving Apollo astronauts, including Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins of Apollo 11 and Jim Lovell of Apollo 8 and the ill-fated Apollo 13 (played in Ron Howard’s film by Tom Hanks), were interviewed for the film. Archival NASA footage, some never before seen, is spectacular and frequently transporting, but the film’s soul is the memories, insights and reflections of the astronauts, whom the filmmakers allow to speak for themselves, avoiding intrusive outside narration and using only minimal titles.
With gratifying humility and grace, the astronauts convey their awe and wonder at leaving the planet of our birth; at seeing with their own eyes, for the first time in history, the whole rim of the earth; at visiting our nearest celestial neighbor and leaving their footprints in its unshifting dust.
The failures and tragedies of the program are also discussed, from explosively abortive test launches, to the tragic fire that killed the crew of the Apollo 1 on the launch pad to the near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission. Belying the familiarity of the history, the film succeeds in evoking the very real threat of failure, underscoring the audacity of the whole enterprise.
It was one thing for President Kennedy, responding to national consternation over the Soviets’ early successes in launching the first satellite and the first manned mission to space, to literally promise the moon by the decade’s end. It was another thing for an intrepid team of brilliant scientists and daredevil pilots to tackle the unknown challenges of improvising a means of actually doing it.
“That’s science fiction!” exclaims Gene Cernan of his actual experiences, and if those under half a century old can’t fully appreciate that sentiment, the achievement it bespeaks is no less singular four decades later, as the fraternity of men who have been to the moon still stands at twelve members. (In the comic strip Peanuts, Linus van Pelt once said he would never want to be the first, second or even third man on the moon because of the pressure and expectations; I don’t remember the exact number where he hit his comfort zone, but I think it was something like 18 or 23. He never would have made it.)
Even at the moment of greatest triumph, as Armstrong and Aldrin took those first small steps, the risk of disaster loomed. While negotiating a suitable landing spot, Armstrong had come within seconds of expending too much fuel to break free of the moon’s gravity. Would the first moon pioneers return from their mission? The White House, it turns out, was ready for the worst, having taped a speech by Nixon to be aired if the lunar blastoff failed.
Perhaps fittingly, much of the screen time goes to Collins, the Apollo 11 crew member left behind in orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin went down to the moon’s surface. Collins was dubbed “the loneliest man in the universe” during that first moonwalk, a moniker he dismisses here. By contrast, the famously reclusive Armstrong is present only in the respectful accolades of his colleagues (“I can’t think of a negative thing about Neil Armstrong,” notes Alan Dean).
In addition to rocks and photographs and data, the astronauts have brought back from the moon something even more valuable: perspective. Their reflections speak to a sense of order and purpose in the universe, the fragility of the earth and the triviality of our terrestrial squabbles in the grand scheme of things, and the importance of our responsibility for the welfare of our planet. The Apollo 8 crew, the first to orbit the moon, recall their Christmas 1968 transmission, the most widely viewed television broadcast at that time, in which they read from Genesis 1. And Charlie Duke, the yougest of the lunar club and a devout Christian, discusses finding God on earth after traveling through the heavens: “My walk on the moon lasted three days… My walk with God will last forever.”
The shadow of human cupidity, failure and tragedy lies dark across the landscape of documentary filmmaking. Exposés, polemics and historical inquiries explore corruption, war, assassinations, negligence and every kind of disaster. These are important and have their place. But we also need documentaries like In the Shadow of the Moon, films that showcase the shadow of man’s potential for collaboration, achievement and even greatness, not just frailty. It wasn’t space or the moon that made the Apollo astronauts remarkable. It was the earth.
There’s an ambitious modesty to Duncan Jones’s debut film Moon, a smart, existential science-fiction drama with one onscreen actor that runs 97 minutes and goes nowhere more exotic than our planet’s natural satellite.
In an age when we rely on computerized directions and GPS devices to drive to the next town, it seems an almost mythic scenario: brilliant men calculating outer-space trajectories on the fly with pencils and slide rules, keeping life and limb together literally with duct tape, flying to the moon and back simply because they could.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.