Sort of an unshakeable belief in your own infallibility. That’s what the right stuff is, that you’re immortal, that you can do anything that is thrown at you.
—Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17
“I called the moon my home for three days of my life and I’m here to tell you about,” says Gene Cernan, astronaut on Apollo 17. “That’s science fiction.” And he’s quite visibly thrilled to tell you about it. Like most of the other nine astronauts interviewed in In the Shadow of the Moon, Cernan recalls his missions with a combination of contemplative calm and little-kiddish awe: a highly trained professional, he enumerates the risks and calculations. But jeez, you know, he went to the moon!
“Between 1968 and 1972,” a title card reports, “nine spacecraft traveled to the moon.” While the astronauts are culled from several missions, the film focuses primarily on the first, the Apollo 11 July 1969 moon landing, as it established patterns of conduct and coverage. The “shadow” of the film’s title creeps in occasionally and in shifting forms. Literally, it’s the cold and dark area the vehicle enters as it approaches the moon for landing, leaving behind the sun and earth; it conjures wondrous isolation and a sense of singularity. “You could feel the moon’s presence,” says Cern. “You couldn’t see it. We went into darkness after being in sunlight the whole time. We went into darkness. And we’re in the shadow of the moon.”
As well, the shadow can be metaphorical. Apollo 11’s pilot, Mike Collins, puts it like this:
I discovered later I was described as the loneliest man in the universe or something, which really is a lot of baloney. I had mission control yakking in my ear half the time. I rather enjoyed it. I certainly was aware of the fact that I was by myself, particularly when I was over on the back side of the moon. I remember thinking, “God, you look over there and there’s three billion people, plus two somewhere, and you look over here and there’s one, plus God only knows what.” I felt that strongly, but I didn’t feel that loneliness. I certainly didn’t feel it as fear. I felt it as an awareness, almost a feeling of exultation. I liked it. It was a good feeling.
This sort of self-reflection—simultaneously unpretentious and intensely poetic—exemplifies the film at its most inspiring and effective. As Collins acknowledges the technical brilliance of the moon landing project and the ambition that propelled it. Several astronauts speak to John F. Kennedy’s initial pronouncements, as well as the competition with the Soviet Union, and one or two mention the cultural and political climate of the 1960s (here the film rather dutifully includes a guitar soundtrack and footage from the Vietnam war.
But David Sington’s documentary is not much interested in history beyond the memories of its interview subjects, and doesn’t provide much context or analysis. When Alan Bean of Apollo 12 notes, “There were a lot of racial issues were going around,” no one brings up the overwhelming white-guyness of the NASA space program. Collins does observe that “A lot of our friends were flying combat missions in Vietnam and there would we have been, had we not been in the space program.” But even when Cernan (the most dependably compelling of the interviewees) confesses that he felt some sense of “guilt” over his extreme privilege and remove as an astronaut, this film does not interrogate the myth of the “right stuff” or the structure of the program. Instead, it defers to Cernan’s “buddies,” the military pilots who “look at it totally different.” They saw the moon landings as an important emblem of U.S. prowess and good intentions.
Just so, the Apollo program moved people. As the men insist, the flights (and press coverage) helped to make up for what was going wrong—logistically, politically, and morally—in Southeast Asian jungles and U.S. city streets. Jim Lovell asserts that, after the “assassinations” of 1968, Apollo 8 was “something positive.” When NASA changed the mission from “an earth orbital type to a trip to the moon,” well, the soundtrack music swells, to underscore what he calls the “time when we made bold moves.”
This perspective was surely glorious, especially as the “we” was understood as an enthused and encompassing collective—of believers. Though the documentary spends some time on the disastrous flash fire that destroyed Apollo 1 and killed three astronauts on the launch pad, this sequence mostly sets a framework for what happens next, the men’s understanding of the risks and their courage in the face of the unknown. As a sun sets and sad music plays, the film transitions from the tragedy to the triumph of Apollo 11.
Given all that has happened in the years since then—the lapses in NASA’s reputation, as well as the new ways that populations of the world look at the U.S. government—the film’s nostalgia is at once breathtaking and poignant. The time when “we” constituted a world full of believers has long since passed, and so, hearing Mike Collins describe that moment gives pause: “We, humankind, we, the human race,” he says, recalling the genuinely warm reception he and the other Apollo 11 astronauts received during their post-flight world tour. “We, people, did it. I think that was a wonderful thing. Ephemeral, but wonderful.”
Apollo 11 and Nixon
The very end of the documentary touches on this idea of the “ephemeral.” After highlighting Neil Armstrong’s stirring first-step declaration (“One giant leap for mankind”) and drawing out Apollo 11’s return flight tensions (Nixon recorded a speech in case they didn’t come back: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace”), the film turns briefly and at last to what happens after all the soaring and the landing and the spectacular returning.
This bit of the story is made even more tantalizing by the fact that Neil Armstrong does not appear in the film. A brief clip shows his parents on I’ve Got a Secret (brought to you by Dream Whip), pre-moon landing. The host asks Mrs. Armstrong, “If it turns out that your son is the first man to land on the moon, how would you feel?” She responds graciously and demurely: “I guess I’d just say, ‘God bless him’ and I wish him the best of all good luck.” The pithy black and white clip offers a remarkable, subtle allusion to the public exposure and expectation that, according to his peers, Armstrong rejected. If others exulted with the attention and adulation, he turned away. “I can’t think of a negative thing about Neil Armstrong,” Alan Dean says. “I think it’s wonderful that he’s been the first man on the moon. Even though he’s somewhat reclusive, then that helps to preserve the image. That’s a tough role. I’d love to do that, but I’d hate to try to fill that role.”
While the interviewees in In the Shadow of the Moon describe their experiences with verve and eloquence, Armstrong’s absence looms over it. It’s not so much a “shadow” on the Apollo program or even on the impulse to explore space. It’s more about the aftermath, the “role” Dean notes here, the role of ambassador, expert witness, inspiration and commercial product. Armstrong’s reasons for rejecting this role remain unknown. Celebrating the Apollo missions’ many accomplishments, the film refrains from questions about cultural and political processes. For all its swelling soundtrack and magnificent imagery, it leaves its most compelling story unexplored.