Wednesday, November 14, 2007

In the Shadow of the Moon

"...a nice touch"-Al Bean's opinion of Apollo 8's lunar reading of Genesis
"As many stars as there are in the heavens," that's how many documentaries there've been about the Apollo moon landings: The officially propagandistic NASA exercises, full of facts and jargon and about as exciting as a shareholders' report (which, in fact, they are); the private documentaries that re-use the same footage and cliches over again; the ones produced by the news conglomerates, with anchor-people front and center (we're not even considering the garage-produced "Capricorn One" conspiracy lunacies)*; then there's "For All Mankind," which artfully combined NASA footage (taken from the original negatives), narrated by unseen and anonymous astronauts.

Now, along comes "In the Shadow of the Moon," and it tries to do something different. Of course, there's the basic overview: Kennedy, Apollo 1, turmoil, Apollo 8, "one small step for a man...," but where "For All Mankind" emphasized a cosmic timelessness, "Shadow" leaves you with the impression that time is passing quickly, especially in that tiny sliver of the cosmic clock when a small fraternity of men walked two worlds. It's been 35 years since someone trod the moon and those men are now retired, from the military and their business interests. So, the filmmakers gathered together most of the surviving Apollo-nauts** (the one hold-out being the reclusive Neil Armstrong, who might have overshadowed--no pun intended--the others), and instead of asking the basic "tell us what it was like," the question is: "How did you feel?" How did you feel training for years for a mission before millions of people, being shoved into space on the point of a 36 story pencil, performing the thousands of items on a check-list to become the single most isolated men in recorded history. How did you feel walking on the moon? What was it like to look up and see your Earth hanging above you?

These and other questions are answered, like Al Bean (Apollo 12) saying that as a test-pilot he resented Alan Shepard flying "faster, higher, louder than me and doing it in front of millions of people," so he signed up for astronaut duty. Mike Collins (Apollo 11) talks about how his hours spent alone behind the moon out of communication with anybody, made him think about the millions of people on the other side of the moon, and whether he might actually BE alone on his side of space. Eugene Cernan (Apollo 17) talks about the fireball generated at stage separations and how each stage kicks them through it. They all talk about the pangs they felt seeing the Earth in space. Ed Mitchell (Apollo 14) comes to an epiphany that everything in his sightline is born of the same star-stuff. Collins, Buzz Aldrin--they don't even acknowledge his real first name "Edwin"--and Capcom Charlie Duke all talk about the tension of the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 (Cernan makes the comment that Armstrong has "cool stones"). Bean talks about why you never wanted to sit next to Aldrin at a party (he'd want to talk about orbital mechanics), and Aldrin reveals his own personal "first on the moon" story.

They are old men now, not the brash test-pilots in their 30's, and with twinkles in their eyes and the freedom of not having to answer to anybody, their answers are reflective, humorous, slightly "gee-whizzy" at their own accomplishments and all too human. It's like listening to grand-paw talk about the days living in a log cabin. Cernan leans back effusively and relaxed, like he's taking in the world. Aldrin sits forward, hunched, telling secrets. Collins sits stock still, but his head bobs and ducks and weaves like an elder Jimmy Stewart.

The images are startling too. A lone worker working on a Saturn-5 rocket nozzle becomes dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the booster as the camera slides back. The launch footage from the gantry POV is from the one Apollo mission that took off at night. There are long takes of the dance of fire and ice at lift-off. And there is the footage of booster separation from a camera located inside the discarded booster, but "Shadow" lets the film continue as, falling back, the Earth heaves into view. In fact, many of the best moments of the film are because the film-makers took the risk of showing the film to the end of each roll. And there is one amazing find. A 1962 episode of "To Tell the Truth," with Neil Armstrong's parents as guests. Their secret? "Our son became an astronaut today!" Cut to Garry Moore asking Mrs. Armstrong: "And what would you say to your son if he became the first man on the moon?" That she loves him and to be careful, of course. "In the Shadow of the Moon" is full of such moments of discovery and homespun wisdom.

"In the Shadow of the Moon" is a matinee.

* The End Credits have the astronauts commenting on the conspiracy theories about staged moon landings in hangars. Cernan gets defensive-"Nobody is going to take those footsteps on the Moon away from me!" Charlie Duke's response is the best: "I can see faking it once, but why in the world would you do it NINE TIMES!!"

** The deceased Apollo astronauts are Pete Conrad (Apollo 12), Fred Haise and Jack Swigert (Apollo 13), Alan Shepard (Apollo 14), and Jim Irwin (Apollo 15).


Jon said...

Just watched this with the family and enjoyed it. Not necessarily the greatest of movies but wondered why you only made it a matinee and not a full-price ticket?

Yojimbo_5 said...

Practical reasons. Part of the "complex" formula that goes into making that determination (oh, how pretentious can I get?) is value for your (not the makers') buck.

I didn't think that you could get any more value out of seeing it in the theater than at home. You're looking at archive footage (cleaned up, and, for once, not flopped, as seems to be traditional for these things) that is not that much improved from the old days, and the sound (I saw it at the Egyptian here in town, so it's a bit hard to tell)was no great shakes, so I think that you got the optimal experience, seeing it at home, as you would in a theater.

I'm all about saving the money of the working man, I am.

It's also why "Ironic Man" is a matinee rather than a rental--it won't look nearly as good at home, no matter what system you got.

My favorite part about this movie is just the interviews--these guys are old men now and at that stage of life when they're retired, they've made their nut, and don't give a shit, and these are the frankest things these guys have said...ever. And it's just nice to see these fighter-jocks being "grand-paw" and not thinking about where they fall on the ol' pyramid. They are the only people to have walked on another world, and they will die before someone else does. I think they know that now, and feel their stories are a real legacy to be left to this generation and the how the WWII vets are talking--they know they're going to die, and the stories have to be told, and they're finding, much to their surprise, that while they were making their normal lives (as they were instructed--I've got my Dad's letter) they might actually be considered heroes, and that we might actually be amazed at what they did, the ordinary Joe's.

I really loved the movie --I was an Apollo kid and would get up at 2am to watch every moon-walk with the volume real low so it wouldn't wake my parents--but like I said, you probably got just as much out of it at home.