In The Shadow Of The Moon (Director: David Sington, UK, 2006): I was delighted to be able to attend the industry screening of the Opening Night film of Hot Docs 2007.
And I grew up in the 70s, when there was, uh – it was – it was a period of, you know, the – the careers advisor used to come to school and – and – he used to – get the kids together and say, “Look, I – I advise you to get a career, what can I say? That’s it.” And he took me aside – he said, “Whatcha you want to do, kid? Whatcha you want to do? Tell me, tell me your dreams!” “I want to be a space astronaut, go to outer space, discover things that have never been discovered.” He said, “Look, you’re British, so scale it down a bit, all right?” “All right, I want to work in a shoe shop then! Discover shoes that no one’s ever discovered right in the back of the shop on the left.” – British comedian Eddie Izzard
I’d venture to say that all of us have “scaled it down” a bit over the years when it comes to dreams of space exploration. Why? Because essentially being an astronaut now means riding in the equivalent of a NASA minivan into low earth orbit to deliver some package for a corporation, or dropping off someone at the decrepit “International Space Station.” It’s sad when the most exciting news out of NASA in the past couple of years has been a sex scandal involving astronauts. Gone are the days when only the roughest and toughest test pilots would dare to strap themselves into gigantic and dangerous rockets which would blast them out beyond earth’s orbit until they had to pilot themselves down to the cold grey surface of the moon. There was a time when all of us thought that moon landings would be commonplace by now, and that NASA would have scheduled service to Mars or Jupiter.
I think there are far fewer boys (but perhaps maybe a few more girls) dreaming of becoming astronauts now than there were when I was growing up in the 1970s, and that’s a little sad. David Sington’s beautiful film takes us back to the heady days of the Apollo missions, when the entire world was watching as the United States and the USSR raced each other to put a man on the moon.
There have been other great films about the space program, both documentary (For All Mankind, From The Earth To The Moon) and fictional (The Right Stuff), but In The Shadow of the Moon is different in several ways. First of all, it focusses tightly on all of the American astronauts who journeyed to the moon, and gathers all the living ones (except, notably, the reclusive Neil Armstrong) for this film to tell their stories completely in their own words. And secondly, the film is being released at a time when America has lost its once-privileged place in the world. Though its claims to be the world’s only remaining superpower are unassailable, it’s a cowering and reactive beast, not the confident and pioneering country it was in the 1950s and 1960s.
Each of these quietly heroic men are now well into their 70s, and it’s likely that this may be the perfect time for them to reflect on what their achievement has meant to humankind. And, to a man, they all come across as genuinely decent individuals who also happened to possess the kind of rugged individuality that made them first excellent test pilots, and then astronauts. Their memories are still incredibly vivid, and even though many of them have probably told their stories hundreds of times by now, director Sington achieves a real sense of intimacy with these guys, often focussing tightly on their eyes and their age-worn faces. Their humour and unflappable natures come through in every moment they’re on screen, and we learn a few new things, like the fact that although Neil Armstrong may have been the first man to set foot on the moon, it was Buzz Aldrin who was the first to relieve himself on it (in his space suit, of course). If I can use two very ironic cliches here, these guys, who have been further from earth than anyone else, are some of the most down to earth and “grounded” men I’ve ever listened to. Their voyage so far outside of their earthly lives has taught them at once how insignificant we are, and yet how very special. It leads to an almost spiritual conclusion about taking more care of the planet, though this is only touched on briefly.
The Apollo project was kicked off when then-President Kennedy declared in 1962 that the United States would send a man to the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade. His assassination and the descent of the country into racial and political turmoil and a deepening and senseless war in Vietnam didn’t deter those involved in the space program. It may even have spurred them onward, to achieve something hopeful and good in the midst of a turbulent decade. The very fact that most of the world shared in the joy of the first moon landing and claimed it for humanity rather than complaining about American imperialism showed what could be accomplished when the whole world shared a dream of exploration and discovery. And when American endeavour and confidence was at an all-time high.
If there is any weakness in this fine film, it’s in the complete lack of information on the competing Soviet space program. The USSR did make several attempts to fly a manned mission to the moon, but all ended in failure. Thereafter, they concentrated instead on achieving some firsts in the construction of space stations like Salyut and Mir. Of course, including information on the USSR would have made the film much longer, and so I can see why it wasn’t included, but the very real “space race” atmosphere was surely a factor in the United States’ rapid progress and massive commitment of funds and personnel.
At one point in the film, being caught up in the elation of seeing such beautiful images from space, I thought of how the rocket technology pioneered by the Nazis to create weapons of destruction was turned to peaceful purposes, for a few shining years, before being turned to violence again in the form of intercontinental ballistic missiles for delivering nuclear weapons. NASA was a beacon, and a place where swords were actually beaten into plowshares* for a season. Unfortunately, the arms race with the USSR drained most of the money out of the space program (after it had improved rocket technology enough to carry nuclear weapons further and further), and any ambitions for manned missions to other planets in our solar system have long since been shelved. Nowadays, the earth’s severe environmental problems demand our attention, and perhaps the only way we can actually achieve anything is to learn from the Apollo program’s ambition, drive, and “can-do” attitude. Can America or the world ever experience that sort of hope and confidence again?
Sington’s poignant film shows us a time and a spirit that we may never recapture, but that is needed now more than ever before.
UPDATE: The film will be released in Toronto and Montreal on September 21st, with expansion across the country in the following weeks. Actor/Director Ron Howard (Apollo 13) has signed on to promote the film.
* “He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.” — Micah 4:3