[9 March 2008]
At first, In the Shadow of the Moon seems like an overly pious homage to the old men who went to the moon. The music swells heroically and the viewer grits his teeth, ready to endure more “greatest generation” hype. Then the old men start to speak and after they get past the anecdotes, what they say is moving and profound. In a vicious age in which meanness of spirit is nearly universal we are shown people who love Earth, all of it, because of their unique experience.
They went off as fighter jocks and test pilots, a group of men willing to risk their lives in what they freely admit was primarily a political effort. To a man they returned truly loving and cherishing the Earth and its people. One astronaut speaks plainly but with great beauty about realizing that he, his spaceship, and everything else is made of matter that formed in stars and he and the universe are one.
Another returns from the moon and spends his first day back happily watching the people at a shopping center. If you are reading this and having a bad day, rent this DVD and you’ll feel better. You’ll know that there’s a kindly old guy who walked on the moon who’s very glad that you are here.
Michael Collins speaks about an amazing thing that happened when the Apollo 11 astronauts went on a worldwide tour. All over the world they were greeted by joyous crowds shouting, “We did it!” What started as a cold war propaganda mission was transformed into an achievement of the whole human race, and it’s beautifully captured here in all-original footage. The moment of universal feeling for human accomplishment was fleeting but transcendent.
For someone who’s old enough to have watched Flower Children degenerate into Reaganites, the consistency of the Apollo astronauts is very heartening. Everyone with television access from 1968 through 1972 saw and was moved by the pictures of a very small and fragile Earth, taken from the viewpoint of the astronauts in space. Then the pictures faded in our collective memory and the planet dove into a sea of pettiness. Not so the astronauts. They saw the beautiful and fragile planet that we live on and they are as committed to it now as they were 36 years ago.
John Young, America’s most experienced astronaut, is especially eloquent on the subject. His experience ranges from Gemini to the space shuttle. Young has watched the environmental degradation of Earth from space for 28 years. When this guy says the Earth is in trouble and we should stop whining about the price of gas, we should listen.
Even though In the Shadow of the Moon is a rare example of a few words being worth several thousand pictures, the photography is stunning. Two shots in particular stand out. One is the footage of the far side of the moon taken from 60 miles high. It’s lunar night and the moon looks mysterious and menacing. It’s not even recognizable as the moon, it’s an utterly alien and forbidding scene. The only clear features are the tops of crater rims that reflect a faint, silvery light. The footage clearly shows that the astronauts are heading into the unknown.
The other shows a lone astronaut standing in front of a series of small hills. It’s difficult to tell that it’s in color until you realize that space is black and the moon is white. The horizon and the colors are alien and it’s the most effective demonstration of someone standing on an alien world that I have ever seen. It’s a picture that Ansel Adams would have been proud to take.
There are many documentaries that tell us why we went to the moon, how we did it and what we found. In the Shadow of the Moon attempts to tell us what the meaning of the lunar landings were. The answer seems to be that going to the moon leads to a true appreciation and a deep love of Earth. It’s fortunate that we are returning to the moon in the next decade. It’s a voyage that’s long overdue.