No moment in recent history has been more magical or awe-inspiring than Neil Armstrong’s first step on the surface of the moon. The world stood still, not in fear or in mourning, but filled with hope.
David Sington’s “In the Shadow of the Moon” takes us back to that moment, when people across the globe were able to celebrate accomplishment as one.
In the foreground of various defining events such as the Vietnam Conflict and the Civil Rights movement are Apollo Missions 8 through 17 from 1968 to 1972. Sington chronicles the ups and downs of these manned missions, using largely never-before-seen footage from the archives of the NASA film library, dug up and re-mastered. The polished look yet nostalgic feel of the film captures the excitement and wonder of the period. The viewer remains starry-eyed for the duration, even though he knows how the story ends.
The documentary stands superior to its similarly themed brethren thanks to the intimacy provided by interviews conducted with eight of the Apollo astronauts. They cumulatively represent all the manned missions and, to date, are of the only 12 people to have seen the Earth from an alien perspective. This collection of interview subjects ranges from the media-friendly Buzz Aldrin to the more reclusive Mike Collins (both of Apollo 11), which livens up the discussion for even the most dedicated NASA buffs.
After almost 40 years, all of the men – most of them in their 70s – have had ample time to reflect on their experiences. Staring straight into the camera, they share their childhood dreams, the challenges they faced as astronauts and the joy they felt in success. If you stick around for the credits, they even offer their thoughts on the many conspiracy theories surrounding the lunar landings.
Their stories, therefore, become more about the human experience than engineering and astrophysics. This bridges the gap between astronaut and layperson, and even between subject and audience. Quickly, the eight men on screen become some of your closest friends, reminiscing about the coolest days of their lives.
Beyond their personal musings, the astronauts do communicate a narrative of sorts centering around Apollo 11, famous for the first lunar landing and Neil Armstrong’s legendary first steps on the moon. While he declined to be featured in the interviews, Sington argues that this only adds to the true meaning of his feat. He said, “The importance of [the proverbial] small step is not that Neil Armstrong stood on the Moon, or that an American stood on the Moon. The real significance is that a member of the human race left our home planet and stepped onto another world.”
This sentiment is echoed in Aldrin and Collins’s accounts of touring the globe post-Apollo 11 mission. They were enthusiastically greeted with shouts of “We did it!” They noted the “we,” for it did not single out the astronauts or even America for the success. It was, instead, we as people, we as humanity.
This resounding theme of victory is quite literally underscored by composer Philip Sheppard. His music evokes ideas of exploration, expressing optimism and exultation. The score, performed by a 60-piece orchestra, is perhaps the most hopeful and inspiring one since “Chariots of Fire” (1981).
Each element of the picture-perfect documentary incites us to remember an American cultural movement that once was, in all its idealism and ambition, and be proud. British Sington muses that Americans are the ones who most forget the inherent patriotism of the Apollo missions. It is “America as it should be, but sometimes isn’t … a country that thrives on challenge and believes there is no problem so difficult it cannot be overcome,” he said.
Beyond overtones of American patriotism and septuagenarian wisdom, “In the Shadow of the Moon” boils down to hope: hope that we will continue to explore, hope that science will continue to push us forward, hope that mankind will unite around a common goal once more, able to proclaim that “we did it.”