Two weeks ago on Real Time With Bill Maher, it was shocking to hear Mos Def, maybe the best actor in pictures today, express his belief that Sept. 11 was an inside job and the moon landing was a set-up. In the Shadow of the Moon, a vibrant documentary on the Apollo missions, is so inspiring it could turn conspiracy theorists like Mos Def into true believers.
It's both irrefutably concrete and irresistibly uplifting. The British director David Sington uses stunning archival footage and a string of interviews with astronauts to construct a personal history of the race to beat the Soviets to the moon that has the buildup, velocity, setbacks and catharses of a classic drama.
This film is an astonishing feat of construction. It traces the development of the Apollo program while giving you an intimate sense of what it was like to be in the astronauts' skin, their bones rattling as the huge Saturn rockets exploded beneath them - and what it was like to be in their expanding heads as, later, they moved "into darkness after being in daylight the whole time" and realized they were "in the shadow of the moon."
The effect of Sington's work with editor David Fairhead is to make you feel as if you're on one hyper-charged, extended voyage of discovery. The individual accomplishments and reversals (including the flames that engulfed Apollo 1 during a test session on the launch pad) become part of an organic group process that encompasses tragic loss, as well as ecstatic epiphanies. In this movie, nothing is merely a steppingstone: Everything is an exploit that's part of one kaleidoscopic adventure.
Each astronaut projects a vastly different personality. The trio on Apollo 11, the mission that first made it to the moon, ranges from dry Buzz Aldrin, dubbed "Doctor Rendezvous" for his obsession with Manned Space Rendezvous techniques, to the ebullient Michael Collins, who didn't set foot on the moon but brings home how important articulate observers are to history. (Neil Armstrong, who performed heroically even before he said "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," as usual, shunned interviews.) But they merge into a group portrait of the Right Stuff.
In the Shadow of the Moon offers an oral history of courage from a recent past that seems more distant every day. "It was a bold move, at a time when we made bold moves," says one astronaut of JFK's proposal to reach the moon before the end of the 1960s. And that audacity was ingrained in each of the astronauts' own being. They ascended into mission mode and stayed there. Only after they achieved their goals could they savor the prospect of "standing on God's front porch."
What's most stirring is the new perspective these men gained on the Earth: "That little thing," one says, "It's so fragile out there, that jewel of an Earth hanging in the blackness of space." The astronauts' vision of the unity, beauty and frailty of their home planet creates a more potent ecological statement than anything in the recent run of environmental documentaries including Arctic Tale and The 11th Hour. And the feeling of mankind unifying behind their quest carries genuine catalytic force.
When we hear a Frenchwoman say she knew the Americans would make it to the moon, her declaration now carries a stinging nostalgia. Similarly, the astronauts' memory that wherever they went, the feeling was "we did it" - not Americans, but humanity - makes you mourn the decrease in that good kind of globalism.
But In the Shadow of the Moon is also propitious and exhilarating. This film isn't just transcendent: It's about transcendence. As the film goes on, every participant in the program uses his skills to the utmost. We see the astronauts increasingly guide the design of their technology and missions and even, with the help of fellow astronauts back in Houston, reason and intuit their way out of their calamities. But in their moments of utmost glory they go beyond their scientific and military points of view.
They achieve an aesthetic appreciation of Earth, the moon, nature and the universe that encompasses ecology and spirituality. Gene Cernan of Apollo 10 speaks for all of them when he says in space he reached a point "where science had met its match."
In the Shadow of the Moon reminds us that the space program reached its pinnacle during the Vietnam War, the struggle for civil rights and a string of soul-shriveling assassinations. Apollo 11 gave the global village a heavenly beacon that blasted through chaos and anarchy. In our own time of war and discord, this movie offers the rousing gallantry of peaceful risk and sacrifice - and hope.
See more photos and watch a preview of In the Shadow of the Moon at baltimoresun.com/shadow