“In the Shadow of the Moon” follows a rough chronology of the Apollo space program. The film opens with the Cold War and features the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America.
Even with the assassination of a young president, the NASA space program recruited the best minds in science and test pilots with the right stuff. Despite all the public good will and intellectual capacity, the Apollo space program is beset with tragedy. The first such tragedy features the Apollo 1 fire which claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee. Despite this setback, the program continued and two years later, four men had walked on the moon.
Produced by Ron Howard, the thrill of seeing “In the Shadow of the Moon” is the digitally enhanced photography that has been sitting in a NASA vault since 1969. The Apollo 11 blast off on July 15, 1969 becomes a beautiful event to behold. The flames from the rocket billow on the big screen. As the NASA scientists became more technically adept with the six moon landings, the film went from black & white stock to color stock. The audience rides the moon rover and witnesses the gravitational comedy of astronauts bumbling across the lunar surface. As these astronauts became known as iconic legends, “In the Shadow of the Moon” treats them as our nice neighbor next door.
With the notable exception of Neil Armstrong, most of the surviving astronauts are interviewed for this project. The story is told through their eyes with a mixture of sentimentality, humor and modesty. Michael Collins was always my favorite astronaut in first grade. Collins never walked on the moon, but he did circle the moon when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon. Known for his wisecracks, Michael Collins supplies “In the Shadow of the Moon” with wry commentary and produces some of the loudest belly laughs in the movie. In contrast, Gene Cernan, a trained fighter pilot, discussed the effect of becoming a public hero overnight for doing, in his own words, "absolutely nothing." Cernan also admits to carrying a guilt complex for not serving in the Vietnam War while some of his colleagues died, forgotten, in the South East Asia jungle.
The running time is under two hours, but “In the Shadow of the Moon” feels longer in a good way. One does not want the film to end. Perhaps sensing this, the producers of “In the Shadow of the Moon” concludes the film with open ended questions, in particular - "What is the meaning of life?" While traveling through space, one astronaut notes that "Death is only inches away." During the return
journey of Apollo 14, Edgar Mitchell admits that underwent a spiritual experience that was a mixture of natural ecstasy. Michael Collins admits that there was something magical in the clockwork of science. Most of the astronauts come to the conclusion that science and technology do not have all the answers, that there is something deeper and more spiritual to life. People in the audience were shouting, "Hallelujah!" during this portion of the film.
As the credits roll, “In the Shadow of the Moon” features outtakes from the interviews. Each astronaut is asked if the moon landing was faked for the television cameras. Dealing with this conspiracy in a straight forward manner worth of the American character, one astronaut answers with a Socratic question, "If space travel did not happen, why we staged it nine times?"
If you want to feel good about yourself and the American character, go see “In the Shadow of the Moon” this weekend.