September 30, 2007

REVIEW: In the Shadow of the Moon (A)

Background: In the early 1970's, NASA's lunar program ended and space travel was replaced by space fantasy, with the Star Wars trilogy and the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative of the Cold War. Then, in 1995, Ron Howard's excellent Apollo 13 struck a nerve with the American public, and a new generation was awe-inspired by the idea of landing on the moon. In the Shadow of the Moon is the latest of a string of related documentaries that have followed since then (many produced by Howard), and it features interviews with the surviving astronauts from the Apollo program, including those on Apollo 11 & 13, two of the most famous missions. The film is directed by David Sington (PBS's NOVA) but "presented" by Ron Howard (with no production credit - ?), and it is meant to give us the first-hand experience from the Apollo astronauts, many of whom you may not even know. Do you know many Americans have traveled to the moon? 24. I had no idea there was a period of time when the U.S. was landing on the moon every six months.

Synopsis: Beginning at the height of the space race in the late 1950's, Sington makes it clear that beating the Soviet Union was a major priority, urgently outlined in JFK's goal (in 1961) to have a successful U.S. manned lunar landing by the end of the decade. We see the early struggles, tragedies, and triumphs, culminating in a detailed recounting of the Apollo 11 mission, which was the first to land on the moon on July 20, 1969. Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins take us through the training, launch, landing, and return to earth. Later Apollo astronauts describe their lunar experiences, hopes, dreams, and spiritual beliefs. By the end, we have a much better sense of what it would feel like to be an astronaut, but still no clue as to how we actually figured out how to visit other planets. It's mind-boggling.

I Loved:
+ The incredible, mostly never-before-seen archival footage, from training sessions at NASA to shuttle cameras to lunar landings.
+ That the focus was on the astronauts' experiences, and not on technical aspects of space travel or history lessons or conspiracy theories.
+ The last section of interviews, when the astronauts share their deeply personal philosophies on life and spirituality, and how they were influence by the experience of being on another planet.

I Liked:
+ The excellent musical score.
+ The quality of some of the footage, so clear that it's hard to believe it was filmed with the technology of the era - really, it's hard to believe...

I Disliked:
- That Neil Armstrong, the first human in history to set foot on another planet, is not interviewed. His fellow astronauts speak so highly of him that you are desperate to hear what he was experiencing. Apparently, he is "reclusive" and has been reluctant to bear his soul to the public.
- The intermixing of tense and possession - all of the astronauts are saying "we" and "I" even when their mission is not being discussed, so it's hard to remember who was doing what with whom on which mission.
- Not learning more about the astronauts' current circumstances, or why the Apollo mission program ended so abruptly.

I Hated:
- That the moon landing conspiracy theory was even addressed. I thought it was completely unnecessary and below the dignity of the film and the astronauts interviewed.

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 28/30 = 93% = A

Last Word: Full disclosure - outer space has always fascinated me, more so than the deepest seas or highest mountains or thickest jungles. I'm the only person I know who was really excited to see the first pictures from Mars, and I love to look out at the stars. I'm not a big alien guy or science fiction aficionado or Trekkie, and I don't even know any constellations other than the Big Dipper. I just like to think about how tiny earth is in comparison to the universe, and the fact that humans have somehow figured how to get to that little night light in the sky amazes me. That being said, I was of course interested to hear about how those humans actually felt about the whole experience. Though Neil Armstrong is desperately missing from the group, I'm glad these men were interviewed before it was too late. Though it's difficult to argue for space travel to be a priority right now (and I don't think it should be), I think it's worth reflecting on the unbelievable fellowship that the U.S. enjoyed with the rest of the world after the first moon landing. It was apparent, at least from the archival footage, that it was a truly a global celebration for an incredible achievement we shared with the world and for which we were deeply admired. Looking at our current reality, it almost feels like we're on a different planet. The tagline for In the Shadow of the Moon is poignant: "Remember when the whole world looked up?"

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