In the Shadow of the Moon

I saw this outstanding documentary about the men who walked on the moon over a month ago, and now that the film has opened locally (on 9/21), I better post something before it ends its short theatrical run.

I’ve seen quite a few documentaries and other programs about the space program. At the time (I was almost 9 years old when Apollo 11 happened) I read and re-read the color handouts my father brought home about the rockets, spacesuits, astronaut food, and so on (I believe he worked on some components in the Instrument Unit located at the top of the third stage). That the Saturn V first stage engines have a total of 7.5 million pounds of thrust is burned into my synapses.

But still I got many things from this film that were new to me. For example, I knew that the engines on the rockets were gimbaled so that they could keep the rocket balanced and going in the intended direction. But until this film, I had never heard an astronaut talk about how it that shifting thrust felt.

The other striking thing about the film is that you really get a feeling for the men themselves. The Apollo 8 astronauts were the first to see Earth from a distance (the famous Earthrise photo from Christmas 1968), and of course the men from Apollo 11 were the first to walk on another world. The experience changed them all, and many of them are quite eloquent in putting words to those feelings. And some are also very funny.

It’s hard to describe why this is such a good film, and perhaps I am not the most neutral judge, but it is very likely to be my favorite documentary of the year and one of the top few films of any kind for the year. If you have a chance to see it in a theater before it disappears, do it!

I saw this film with the Camera Cinema Club, and the director (David Sington) was at the screening to answer questions. Here are a few things I wrote down:

  • Most of his films were documentaries done for BBC television, and this was his first film intended for theatrical release
  • A couple of his people worked on a space drama for the BBC
  • Touching the Void was an inspiration, and he also acknowledged a connection with 2001
  • He has a science background, and he said that the Apollo program got him interested in science
  • Dave Scott (Apollo 15 astronaut) recruited the other astronauts
  • Dave Scott also told the director that they wouldn’t get Neil Armstrong, and while the director did exchange some e-mail with Armstrong, Scott turned out to be right; Armstrong argued that his position as the first man to walk on the Moon was arbitrary, and that his feelings were not important, just that it had been done
  • The director usually had dinner with the subjects of an interview the night before, so everyone was comfortable; the director did not write a script first, but just gave the men a platform to talk and formed a film out of the results
  • The video archive from the Moon missions is largely unexploited
  • The director says that the astronauts really are that nice, funny, “down to Earth” (“they know what to be down to”), saner than just about anyone, and self confident without being egotistical
  • Mike Collins (the Apollo 11 astronaut who did not walk on the Moon) goes fishing every day
  • Man didn’t really appreciate man’s place in the Universe until leaving the Earth
  • The director said that Apollo is the ultimate expression of what we can do with rational thought and intelligence, leading through inspiration, which is the opposite of celebrity culture and regressive religious wars
  • The director pointed out that the space program was really the work of hundreds of thousands of people
  • There are many shared events in history (e.g., either of the Kennedy assassinations), but the Apollo 11 landing is one of the few good ones

Of course I’ll give it a full 4 stars out of 4 stars.

Seen 8/19/2007.

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