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In the Shadow of the Moon - poster

 
 
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In The Shadow Of The Moon
featuring: Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, John Young, and Alan Bean

director: David Sington

96 minutes (PG) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Film 4 DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
The 20th century was an ugly time. Auschwitz, the Somme, Hiroshima, Cambodia, and Rwanda... the list seems endless. And yet, when people look back at it, they will regard Apollo with awe. It was one of the most audacious adventures that our species has ever participated in. Some of the men who flew to the Moon are dead now, and the remaining survivors are all old men, so David Sington has decided to capture them before they are all gone. He has also taken NASA's original footage and restored it. This must have been a wonderful thing to experience in the cinema and even on the small screen it is a delight. The Saturn V launch, for example, is a jaw-dropping sight that really gives a feel for how massive this monster was. This 111-metre spaceship was so heavy that it took 15 seconds to clear the launch tower in a feat that one of the astronauts vividly describes as being like balancing the world's biggest pencil on a fingertip.

NASA made (and still makes) contemporaneous films of all of their manned space missions, and DVDs of these can be bought easily enough. What Sington has done is to blend all of the moon flights into one enormous mission. Armstrong's first step is followed by the lunar buggy excursions and so on. Of course, this means that to avoid duplication some of the missions, such as Apollo 10 (a dress rehearsal for the first landing), receive very little coverage in the main feature.

The astronauts come across as extraordinary people, and remarkably humble ones at that. They regard themselves as extremely lucky to have had this experience, and some of them even apologise for being undemonstrative on the missions when, after all, they had been selected for their emotional stability.

It is the three Apollo 11 astronauts who get the most attention. Michael Collins was the command module pilot who stayed in orbit while the other two landed, and comes across as genial and witty. This is a man who is very comfortable with himself. Buzz Aldrin, famous evermore as the second man on the moon, had his own demons to battle after the mission. He's come out the other side with an acceptance of what he's managed to achieve with his life, but is still feisty. Neil Armstrong never appears for Sington, but his presence is felt everywhere in this film. He rarely gives interviews and after the global publicity tours were over, he effectively withdrew from public life. Already one senses that he is becoming a mythic being. The other astronauts speak of him with awe and even amongst a group as stoic as this, the tales of his nerve and ability stand out. It is remarkable how much variety there is amongst the group. Several of them state that the Moon voyage awoke or increased their sense of religiosity. This is hardly surprising, but it probably happened for a reason that isn't mentioned in the film. The head of NASA astronaut selection was a committed Christian and he was hardly going to select a Richard Dawkins to represent America. By way of contrast, few (if any) cosmonauts have reported a religious epiphany.

Those of us left on Earth, though, experienced it through the medium of television. Walter Cronkite's coverage is briefly presented to most non-Americans here for the first time. Before him, though, we get some impressive opening graphics of the Moon in motion and then - ding! - "Sponsored by Kellogg's - Kellogg's puts more in your morning." It truly is an alien world that we are watching. And talking of alien worlds, there is also the Moon.

The first mission, with Armstrong and Aldrin, was little more than a smash-and-grab raid. They set up a few instruments, gathered and photographed some rocks, and were gone in a few hours. It is the later missions, especially the ones with the moon buggies, which provide the most remarkable imagery. It is very hard to get a sense of perspective on the Moon. There are no familiar points of reference and, since it is a much smaller world than our own (imagine the surface of Africa covering the outside of a ball and you'll have a pretty good match), the horizon is disconcertingly closer. It takes the astronauts themselves and their equipment to add scale and colour to the place. This is not to say that it is a dull place. Spectacular mountains and valleys surrounded the Apollo 15 mission that landed in the lunar highlands and make its footage one of the highlights of Apollo, but all of the missions had their unique points. It is when we look back and see the tiny landing module (looking terribly fragile after the power of the Saturn V) that we finally realise that we have reached another world.

Sadly Sington has felt that it was necessary to have the astronauts rubbish the hoax claims over the end credits. In my experience the conspiracy buffs are too lazy (or stupid) to gain the science education that would disprove their claims, and nothing the astronauts say will convince them of their error.

There are an additional 18 mini-documentaries on subjects that were left out of the main feature, on project Gemini, and Apollos 9 and 10 amongst others, and they include one that was made of Aldrin when he was a fighter pilot in the Korean War, reminding us that he would have had a remarkable life even without Apollo. There's also a feature on the making of Philip Shepherd's score (good but overly sentimental in places) and, finally, the original trailer.
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