by Discovery Films

100min/September 2007

In the Shadow of the Moon

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

"In the Shadow of the Moon" is a documentary directed by David Singleton and presented by Ron Howard.  Although it focuses on NASA's push to the Moon, highlighting the Apollo 11 mission, it covers the entire span of NASA's lunar missions and includes on-screen interviews with many astronauts, the only people who appear on the screen outside of archival footage.

Although focused on the lunar landings, the film does begin with a look at NASA's early launch failures, many of them ending in spectacular explosions which left quite an impression on my nine-year-old daughter as we watched.  The film also included the nearly obligatory coverage of the Apollo 1 loss and its aftermath, all of which was a prelude to the actual lunar landing.

Ten of the surviving eighteen men who have reached Lunar orbit are featured in the film, and they represent all the Apollo flights up to Apollo 17 with the exception of Apollo 7. Their stories are interesting, although the intercutting between their interviews and some of the archival file seems strange.  When Buzz Aldrin first appears on screen, the clips only feature short sentences before the filmmakers cut to the words of the other astronauts.  Later, footage of an Apollo capsule shot from a separated stage tends to last a little too long, although as it ends, with the view of the Earth's atmosphere, Gene Cernan's comments explain the decision to include so lengthy a clip.

The astronauts are also able to put a human face on the lunar explorers in a manner which nobody else can.  Charles Duke proudly showed drawings by his children, Charlie and Tom, which were included in the mission plan wishing him a speedy and safe return.  Other astronauts discussed the spiritual change that occurred as they looked back on the small, fragile, Earth they had left behind.

Each astronaut also allowed his personality to show through.  Most notably, Michael Collins, the command module pilot on Apollo 11, told simple stories which fully captured what the astronauts were going through.  Alan Bean's interviews clearly show a man who is still surprised by the fact that he was given the opportunity to travel to the Moon, an everyman for the program who viewed it as the adventure it was.

Because the Apollo 11 mission is the one in which man first set foot on the surface of an alien world, it holds a cachet of wonder, and In the Shadow of the Moon focuses on that particular landing more than any of the others. This tight focus is a pity, given the wonderful things that the astronauts on later missions discovered.  Apollo 13 gets special mention, perhaps because the dramatization starring Tom Hanks reignited public interest in it, but with two moon walkers each from Apollo 16 and 17, those missions could easily have taken up more space, as well as the discovery of the "Genesis Rock" by David Scott on Apollo 15.

Despite some problems with pacing, In the Shadow of the Moon does an excellent job of giving an overview of the Apollo missions and the times, although Tom Hanks's miniseries From the Earth to the Moon is able to go over the same ground at much greater detail.  Nevertheless, having the actual voices of the astronauts who traveled to the Moon, although Bean does joke about the conspiracy theorists' claim that the lunar landings were shot in a soundstage in New Mexico, brings a vitality to the film which lifts it above most documentaries.

Coincidentally, at the same time the film was released, Francis French and Colin Burgess published a book, In the Shadow of the Moon, which also relies heavily on interviews with several of the Apollo (and Gemini) astronauts, although that unrelated book covers the period from the first manned Gemini mission to Apollo 11. While the book offers greater depth, it lakes the images and voices the documentary has.  Packaging the book and the DVD together would be a wonderful marketing move if Discovery Films could come to an agreement with French and Burgess.

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