Moriarty Stands IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON And Meets Buzz F@#kin’ Aldrin!
Published at: Aug. 27, 2007, 3:21 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Writing about movies leads to the strangest opportunities sometimes, and the other night was one of those moments for me. As long as I can remember, I have considered the US space program to be one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind on any level. There’s something about the idea that we looked up at the night sky, pointed at the moon, and said, “We are going there” that moves me. The notion that we can do something as monumental as leaving our planet is an indication of just what we are capable of as a species, and when I find myself discouraged or cynical about the state of things, I just think of the best of what we can do, and it restores my faith.
I spent much of my childhood and teenage years in Florida, and one of the best things about growing up in the Tampa area was being close to Cape Canaveral. As a result of that, I was fortunate enough to see many, many launches of various types over the years. I went to a few launches, even skipping school for some of them so I could see them up close. Sorry about that, Mom and Dad... but it was worth it. Even cooler in a way were those nights when they would put up a launch, and my family could just sit on the back porch of our house in Tampa and watch the launch from there. Seeing that flame tear across the night sky is one of the most amazing memories I have.
So when I was asked if I wanted to attend a screening the new documentary IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON and then attend a reception where I’d be able to meet the director as well as presenter Ron Howard and Buzz Aldrin, my answer was, “How soon do I need to be there?” The event got me there... but the great news is that the film is fantastic in its own right.
I find it somewhat hilarious that one of the most unabashedly pro-American films I’ve seen in recent memory was created by a largely British crew, headed by director David Sington. This is a movie about the space program, yes, but in a larger sense, it’s a movie about a time when America was a world leader for all the right reasons, when we lived up to the promise of our nation, and when we managed to do something great simply because we could.
What makes this film impressive, even if you’re a space junkie who has seen all the major documentaries and who has seen as much of the archival footage as has been out there, is that somehow they’ve actually come up with brand-new footage from the entire series of Apollo missions. And not a few shots here and there, either, but reams of new material, and some of it is downright revelatory. Sington’s pulled off some clever technical tricks, too, like taking radio transmissions from Mission Control and synching them up to previously silent footage to create the definitive record of certain events.
What makes the film great, though, is the amazing access that Sington and his crew had to the remaining members of the Apollo missions. The interviews they got with these guys make up the meat of the movie, and this is where IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON really distinguishes itself. As Ron Howard said when we spoke after the film, “When I was researching APOLLO 13, I talked to so many of these guys, and what I noticed is that one-on-one, they’re all so funny and amazing and human, and the stories they tell are remarkable, but in most of the official NASA footage, you get the feeling that they’re on-message... that they’re protecting their image.”
Many of these guys are in their 70s now, though, and what happened as Sington started to gather these interviews is that they finally loosened up. Here, finally, I think all the caution that they’ve understandably had to exercise over the years as public figures has been set aside. It’s strange... these are guys whose names are in history books. They aren’t just famous. They go way beyond famous. There’s famous, and then there’s legendary, and these men have all been part of something so large that we’re still processing it as a culture. And as a result of how enormous their accomplishments were, it’s easy to forget that they are human, first and foremost. Or it would be, except Sington has created a remarkable record here, and in the future, any serious study of what these men did will have to include this film. That’s amazing. It’s one thing to create a movie that tells the story of the Apollo missions, but it’s another thing entirely to craft a document that adds to our cultural understanding of something that affects each and every one of us.
The way the Apollo missions are laid out in this film won’t really be a surprise to anyone already familiar with the events, and I assume if you’re even contemplating going to see a documentary about the Apollo missions, you’ve probably seen FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, which is, of course, fucking great. And you’ve most likely seen APOLLO 13, as well, so it’s not like you’re going to be surprised by the narrative. What will surprise you is the intimacy and the warmth of hearing the stories directly from the astronauts. Buzz Aldrin’s been a very public spokesperson for the space program for years, and in a way, he’s sort of become fossilized in the way he tells them. And I only mean that in the way that anyone who speaks about something thousands of times must become a little... rehearsed. Sington must be an amazing interviewer, though... and since he’s not part of the documentary, I have no idea how he steered the conversation, how he got Aldrin to open up and suddenly speak about his experiences in a fresh way again. But it’s not just Aldrin... it’s Alan Bean and Eugene Ceman and Michael Collins and Jim Lovell and Dave Scott and pretty much everyone...
... with one very notable exception. The one guy you won’t see in this film, aside from the Apollo astronauts who are no longer alive, is Neil Armstrong. “The First Man On The Moon.” And according to the press notes, Armstrong simply declined to be involved. That choice becomes important to the way Sington’s film works, though. Armstrong is larger than any of the others in terms of mythology because of that phrase, and Armstrong’s been acutely aware of it for the last thirty-something years. He’s always been press-shy, so the portrait of him that emerges in the film is entirely from archival footage or the interviews... the way the men around him describe him. And in offering up the other Apollo astronauts as the ones to speak for him, Sington seems to make them all equal. Suddenly, “The First Man On The Moon” is just one of the Apollo astronauts again... no different than them, no greater than them. He’s just one of them, a guy who did this amazing job as part of a giant program. He had a particular role to fill, and he filled it, just like they all did.
Of course, their job was going to THE MOON. As much as the going there makes these men exceptional, so does the idea that they’ve lived with it ever since. Can you imagine what that must do to you psychologically... or spiritually? You shake off the shackles of this planet and gain a vantage point on it that only a handful of other people will ever share. You can describe it. You can show pictures to people. But they can’t really understand what you went through, and they can’t share that experience with you ever. This film gets into that, and you get some sense of the overall cumulative impact it’s had on them, which is one of the most interesting things about it to me. And no matter what, I get the feeling from this film that not one of them would trade the experience for anything.
After the screening, I made my way out to the lobby, where a small reception was underway. The publicists from 42West made sure to walk me over to Ron Howard first so we could talk for a few minutes, and one of the things that struck me is that Howard and Tom Hanks are both from a generation that grew up absolutely crazy about astronauts. They dreamed about space and idolized these guys, and it’s no wonder they’ve dealt with these stories in their work. I hope that a film like this might serve in some small way to pass that dream down to a younger generation of kids. Something’s got to spur them to believe in exploration and the thrill of discovery and the promise of space, because right now, shuttle launches hold all the romance of a city bus schedule for kids. After I talked to Howard for a few, I was led over to the other side of the lobby where I got a chance to spend about ten minutes talking to Buzz Aldrin. Like I said... he’s been one of the most visible faces of the space program for the last 40 years, and talking to him, part of me was aware that he was in full-on salesman mode, talking to me about his children’s book or his other publishing efforts. But part of me was simply humbled to know that in a town where I regularly deal with people who pretend for a living, this was a man who did something real, something that made us better as a species. I was humbled to shake his hand, and driving home to Northridge, I found myself looking up, hoping for a glimpse of the stars overhead.