Friday, July 23, 2010

A Stellar Documentary

When I was growing up in the 1960s, I eagerly followed the NASA space flights, from the one-man Mercury to the two-man Gemini to the three-person Apollo flights. I couldn't get enough of these and like most kids growing up then, I watched all of this on tv, whether at school during the day or at home during the evening.

When the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July 1969, it was a milestone in everyone's life and at 13, it was something that influenced my life and has stayed with me to this very day. Seeing the moving documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon (2007) for the first time the other day, took me back to my youth and reminded me how magnificent man can be when he is challenged to go to a higher, more distant pinnacle than ever before.

Director David Sington organized his film around interviews taken in 2006 with several astronauts from various Apollo missions; these include Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin from Apollo 11; James Lovell from Apollo 8 and 13; Alan Bean from Apollo 17; Edgar Mitchell from Apollo 14; Charlie Duke from Apollo 16 and Dave Scott from Apollo 9 and 15. Sington films them in closeup as they talk and it's interesting to see how youthful these men look in their 60s and 70s. Sington and his editor David Fairhead include a few extreme closeups which were merely test shots for focus on the eyes of various astronauts and were meant to be throwaways, but these brief images are quite revealing and visually notable.

Speaking of visuals, it's hard to go wrong with images of the huge Saturn rockets lifting off or of the astronauts walking on the moon. We've seen these before of course, but there are many images we haven't seen, as NASA officials allowed the director access to some shots that had never even been processed before this film. Visually, this is a wonderful film, especially seeing the earth as the astronauts saw it, from the vastness of space. No matter how many times we see this visual, it's stirring.

Sington has wisely decided to organize this film not by mission number, but by flight plan, so we get comments from the various astronauts on everything from the jolt they felt at liftoff to the excitement of seeing the moon up close to the thrill of walking on the moon to final splashdown back on earth. Thus the film becomes more than an exercise in trivia, but a journal of what life was like for these special men.

As visually interesting as this film is, the best part of this work is the collection of interviews with the astronauts. Some of the best remarks come from Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 crew member who did not walk on the moon, but instead stayed in the command module above the moon while his crewmates were making history traversing the lunar landscape. Collins says that while he remained positive during the flight, he was always "mildly worried" that something would go wrong. Upon completion of the mission, he comments that "nobody messed up. Even I didn't make any mistakes!"

There are dozens of other wonderful insights. Lovell talks of how small earth looked from space, saying he could put his thumb up and cover the entire planet. Bean recalls the "weird feeling" he had walking on the moon, as it was only his crewmate and himself, while Mitchell remembers asking himself on the moon, "What am I doing here? You've really got yourself in trouble now."

Sington also has the astronauts talk about their feelings as they returned and how they look at their life and the world today. Mitchell, recalling the view he had of space upon the return from the moon, says that "my molecules were the same as that of the stars." Bean comments that since his return to earth,

"I have not complained about the weather one single time. I’m glad there is weather. I’ve not complained about traffic – I’m glad there’s people around... Boy we’re lucky to be here. Why do people complain about the Earth? We are living in the Garden of Eden."

There is also a remarkable clip of President Nixon reading a prepared statement from the Oval Office about the tragedy of Aldrin and Neil Armstrong not returning from the moon. This was written in case the motor of the lunar module did not fire for their takeoff from the moon, which would have meant they would have been casualties, as there was no way to retrieve them. "They know there is no hope for their return but they know there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice," was part of this chilling message and what foresight it took for NASA to cover this possibility!

One final production note and that concerns the beautiful score composed for the film by Philip Sheppard. He writes stirring themes, never going over the top in emotion. The scenes of the huge rockets at liftoff are accompanied beautifully with Sheppard's music, which here is patterned after a classical concerto.

This is a highly recommended work that reminds us of how positive men can be when they are united in pride.

One final note: This was somehow passed up by the Academy for nomination as Best Documentary for the year 2007. Over the past decade, the branch that nominates the films for this award has become more socially conscious, focusing on subjects from war to terrorism to illegal dolphin fishing. While those are serious subjects and the films made about them were often quite powerful, it's a shame that a beautifully crafted, heartrendering film such as this could not even garner a nomination.

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