It's been nearly 40 years since Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind, but the sheer wonder and majesty of his first step on the moon has hardly diminished with the passage of time. In the Shadow of the Moon, one of the few documentaries to sufficiently capture the awe of that historic moment, pays tribute to the Apollo astronauts who literally reached beyond the heavens.
British documentarian David Sington and his crew constructed this cinematic journey by poring over copious reels of rare, and sometimes never-before-seen, footage from NASA and other sources. Many of the images are simply breathtaking, particularly those taken from fixed cameras in the command and lunar modules.
For all its considerable beauty, however, 2007's In the Shadow of the Moon primarily concerns itself with the personal recollections of the courageous Apollo astronauts. Sington interweaves astonishing visuals with compelling interviews featuring the likes of Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Michael Collins, Jim Lovell, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Edgar Mitchell and others. Eschewing a voiceover narrator, the documentary wisely lets these firsthand remembrances speak for themselves. The resulting tone is elegiac, occasionally reverential, sometimes playful -- and always gripping.
Moreover, the astronauts offer a diversity of perspectives. Some are stoic, some philosophical; others are funny and folksy. But collectively they have a commanding and thoughtful air that attests to the astounding nature of their accomplishment. Maybe gravitas is just inevitable when you rack up 240,000 Frequent Flyer miles on a single trip.
Armstrong is conspicuously absent here -- he has long been a reluctant interview subject -- but the documentary gathers some wonderful reminiscences from his ex-colleagues. And there is a terrific clip from a 1962 episode of TV's I've Got a Secret, in which Armstrong's parents are asked what they would say if their boy winds up the first man on the moon.
The film's centerpiece, of course, is the Apollo 11 flight in July of 1969 that took Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the moon. The interviewees frame the tale with drama and suspense, but In the Shadow of the Moon is comprehensive enough not to scrimp on other Apollo missions. Spanning from the genesis of the program to the catastrophic Apollo 13 flight, the doc does not whitewash things. It touches on NASA's haste in attempting to keep pace with the Soviets, including the tragic 1967 spacecraft fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger B. Chaffee and Ed White. Apollo astronaut John Young remembers that he and Grissom had concerns beforehand about wiring in the capsule. "I'd asked Gus, 'Why don't you say something about this wiring? This wiring is really terrible,'" Young recalls. "And he said, 'I can't say anything about it because they'll fire me.' I couldn't believe it."
The exploration of space itself has become a bit ho-hum with the passage of years. Once upon a time, a space shuttle liftoff was greeted with nationwide interest; nowadays, NASA is more apt to grab headlines when a female astronaut is accused of traveling across country to kill a romantic rival (boy, that reference sure is gonna be dated in a few years). In any case, In the Shadow of the Moon returns us to a remarkable period when the people of the world shared in the triumph of conquering space. In today's geopolitical realities, that sense of global unity almost feels like a fairytale.
Presented in 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16x9 television screens, In the Shadow of the Moon is stunning. The filmmakers remastered all of the archival NASA footage, rendering the picture quality about as solid as you could want. The modern-day footage is stellar. Overall, the print boasts strong lines, sharp details and bold colors.
Viewers can choose between Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0, both of which are clean and crisp. There are no discernible defects. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
An optional introduction from Ron Howard runs one minute, 32 seconds. He says pretty much what you'd imagine the director of Apollo 13 would have to say.
A commentary featuring Sington, editor David Fairhead and archive producer Chris Riley is informative and honest. Sington doesn't hold back when he thinks his movie fell short (he's a bit too tough on himself, if you ask me), but he also peppers his commentary with insight into the filmmaking process. He points out instances in which he took creative license in using Apollo footage out of chronological order. For the sequence of Apollo 11's liftoff, Sington says he told composer Philip Sheppard to write music that would be appropriate for "an Amish barn-raising," hoping to tap into the pioneering spirit of space travel.
Eighteen segments of bonus interviews and stories have an aggregate running time of 57 minutes, 27 seconds. Basically material left on the cutting room floor, there is plenty of rewarding information here on myriad of topics.
Scoring Apollo: A Short Feature with Composer Phillip Sheppard (11:12) is about the stirring music of In the Shadow of the Moon. In Ron Howard: Inspired by Apollo (6:35), the Apollo 13 director waxes on the mettle of the astronauts. Also included are a theatrical trailer and a trailer gallery that includes War/Dance and Nanking.
You don't need to be a stargazer for the movie cast its spell on you. An extraordinary documentary about the singular experience of going to the moon, the film is a testament to what is arguably humankind's most wondrous achievement. Buoyed by strong bonus material, ThinkFilm's In the Shadow of the Moon is not to be missed.