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09.19.07

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Photograph by Nasa
VISOR VIEW: The Apollo mission culminated in a touchdown on the surface of the moon.

In the Shadow of the Moon

Ron Howard-produced documentary asks Apollo astronauts to tell it like it was

By Richard von Busack


The Apollo program, which sent nine missions to the moon from 1968 to 1972, coincided with four violent years in American history. Gil Scott-Heron's poem "Whitey on the Moon" was the ghetto point of view of the achievement, and there was widespread belief that some authorities were using the moon to eclipse the war in Vietnam and the burning inner cities. Nihilistic jokers could even buy a poster showing Armstrong on the lunar surface with a mockup of a Daily News front page, complete with screaming 120-point block letters: "SO WHAT?" During these similar times of tarnished American self-esteem, that cinematic prince of uplift Ron Howard has put his name above the title of David Sington's documentary In the Shadow of the Moon.

It was high time to reinterview the Apollo astronauts. All three of the Apollo 11 team are approaching age 80. Twelve men eventually walked on the moon, and six are interviewed here. NASA's deliberately bland PR tried to minimize the troubles during the missions. The disinclination of brave men to reveal much about their feelings, and Time-Life's editorial standards, all conspired to make the astronaut type boring: a uniform gang of flattops and flyover-country accents. But then you read Buzz Aldrin's fine memoir Return to Earth or Michael Collins's Carrying the Fire and discover they had personalities. Aldrin is naturally the astronaut you'd want to meet if you could only meet one. The big lowbrow laugh in In the Shadow of the Moon is Aldrin's story of his own personal first. There's a lot to be said for Collins' indomitable folksiness, though—he vividly describes piloting a rocket as "a novice driving a wide car down a narrow alley."

Alan Bean of Apollo 12 claims he was among the more fearful of the astronauts, and the one who admits to wondering just how thick that porthole glass was. Mostly the endless tests and drilling—those essential parts of military training meant to conquer fear—performed their age-old function. Jim Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13, tersely comments that if he had panicked, he'd still be up there.

One hole in the movie is the absence of Neil Armstrong. Armstrong is the dictionary definition of the recluse, a man who avoids reporters. All here have praise for his nerve and decisiveness. We're reminded that Armstrong was a civilian when he made his first step on the moon: a veteran, but a civilian. The Apollo 11 landing was more scary than NASA made it look; the Eagle came within 60 seconds of a command to abort. One chilling moment is the reading of the pre-prepared statement, written up in the event that Aldrin and Armstrong were stranded forever: words to the effect that "they came in peace, and now they will rest in peace." While Collins describes his solitude in the orbiter on the dark side of the moon, In the Shadow of the Moon doesn't mention the complete radio silence that made those moments excruciating for those on earth.

In the Shadow of the Moon lacks the visual splendor of the highly recommended For All Mankind, a mesmerizing collage of the Apollo missions with 35 mm footage of the surface. Trying to integrate social upheaval with the space-race, Sington uses split-screen to contrast the spinning simulator and the whirling of kaleidoscopic shapes in a hippie light show. He found charming footage of Armstrong's mom on TV's I've Got a Secret being asked what she'd tell her son if it turned out he was the first on the moon.

The moon voyages were a triumph of science, carried out without the help of anything anyone today would seriously call a computer. I've read that Armstrong says that a Mars landing will be easier. But there is a spiritual element at work here, and that's a sign of the times: we hear about the controversial reading from a fireproof Bible of a page of Genesis during the Christmas 1968 orbit. Charlie Duke of Apollo 16 later became a born-again Christian. On a more secular level, Cernan talks of the emotional punch of seeing the world in one whole piece, the same matter Al Gore was discussing in An Inconvenient Truth.

"There are two moons in my head," says one of the astronauts, stressing the difference between his voyage and the view we all get at the inconstant moon. From this film, you get a sense of stillness that might stay with one forever after such a journey: that stillness, and the memory of an immeasurably sharp contrast between a luminous bone-clean desert and a deep black horizon.


Movie Times IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (PG; 100 min), directed by David Sington, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.


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