When the world was moonstruck

The Baltimore Sun

All David Sington set out to do was interview the nine men, still living, who walked on the moon. That in itself - bringing together members of perhaps mankind's most exclusive club, men who have visited another world - would be reason enough to make a film. As Sington notes, the astronauts are not big into reunions and rarely gather together to share their experiences.

But it didn't take long for the award-winning British filmmaker to realize that In The Shadow of the Moon was more than simply a bunch of old men reminiscing. It was, he grasped, a welcome opportunity to revisit a moment when the entire world could share in a singular, spectacular accomplishment, when people all over the globe could bask in the glow not of what one man did, or even what one country did, but what mankind had accomplished.

"It started out, in my mind, as a film about the experiences of the Apollo astronauts," Sington says. "But it became a film about the global experience, the sharing of that experience, which I remember as a kid. It started out about them, but it also became a film about us, as we were.

"There is a sort of bittersweet nostalgia. I mean, what a fantastic moment it was. I hope that the film is kind of, in a way, an invitation to remember how great it feels."

Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon, agrees that the lunar landings provided an emotional rallying point for all mankind, a worldwide, communal good feeling that may not have been matched since. He demurs, however, when asked if that is Apollo's greatest legacy. Instead, he believes the moon missions made people realize that nothing is impossible.

"I think it upped the ante for what humans, and teams of humans, and companies, can do," Bean says from his home near Houston. "Everyone I know was affected by having done this impossible dream."

Sington, working with producers Duncan Copp and Christopher Riley, was able to get eight of the nine astronauts to participate in the project. Apollo 15 moonwalker Jim Irwin had first approached Copp and Riley, and was key in getting his fellow astronauts onboard.

"We were in a rather privileged position, in that we were being recommended to these guys by one of their own number, by a member of this very elite club," Sington says. "Scott had approached Duncan and Chris and said, 'Look, we Apollo guys are getting on a bit. It's time that we tried to do a reunion, and maybe you're the people to help organize a program about it.' I think all the astronauts agreed with Dave, that it was time to do this."

The only one who didn't agree to be interviewed was the most famous moonwalker of all, Apollo 11 Cmdr. Neil Armstrong. On July 20, 1969, he became the first man to set foot on another world, and ever since has assiduously shunned the spotlight.

"I do respect that decision," says Sington, who exchanged e-mails with Armstrong, "and I think he's probably right not to talk about it.

"When I cut the film, I saw that what we wanted to talk about was the way that moment was shared by everybody around the world. And I thought, 'Actually, Mr. Armstrong, I think you've got a point there.' What he's really saying is, 'I was a representative of the Apollo program, a representative of the United States, and a representative, ultimately, of humanity.' Neil understands that if you start talking about what Neil Armstrong was doing, it makes it particular, when it should be a general experience."

In the Shadow of the Moon also represents, Sington suggests, a challenge to the United States to regain that thrillingly adventurous, not to mention laudably humanistic, high ground. There's a wonderful moment in the film where a French woman insists she never doubted Apollo 11 would succeed in its mission to land the first men on the moon; after all, the Americans were behind it.

"I think you could go up and down the Champs-Elysees all month with a camera and not get that kind of reaction again," Sington says. "I think that's sad - and not just for America. I think that's sad for the world.

"As a non-American person, I think I saw the whole Apollo program as characteristically American," he explains. "Not just something that America did, but something that showed what America is when it's at its best. I hope the film is an invitation to America to be like that again."


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