David Sington’s so-so space program

Arguably the most far-reaching and influential event of 1969 (which, as years go, was a doozie), was the late-July success of the Apollo 11 mission, which allowed a planetful of rapt humans to watch via television as one of their own, for the very first time, walked the surface of a heavenly body not called Earth.

(Disclaimer: For the purposes of this review, I will operate under the assumption that the Apollo 11 mission was authentic, and not the most spectacular hoax ever visited upon our occasionally guileless species. I have made this decision not because I presume in the least to know the truth, but because I wish to sidestep the generous application of “allegedly” and other diplomatic, semantic pseudo-safeguards throughout. Kind of like when you have to sack it up and just pick a pronoun gender, because otherwise you’ll be stuck with a case of the “he/she”s.)

All things considered, then, I was left doubly saddened by In the Shadow of the Moon, David Sington’s straightforward, few-frills, pretty-good doc about the U.S.’s purported propensity for plopping folks on the lunar surface. Not only was I rather nonplussed by Shadow’s against-the-odds failure to make much of an impression, I — and this, I believe, is a first for me with any film — was genuinely disappointed with my own inability to be impressed by it.

The film offers what amounts to a points-of-interest tour of the United States’ manned Moon missions (c. 1960-1972), culling anecdotes and, certainly, mind-boggling images from our space program’s heady salad days and early triumphs. Stops along the way include the selection of NASA’s inaugural group of space guinea pigs, the Mercury astronauts (a.k.a. Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, et al.); the Soviet gauntlet throw-down (Horrors! They’ll get there first!); JFK’s inciting challenge — to make a lunar round-trip before decade’s end — and his subsequent assassination; the Apollo 1 fire, which claimed the lives of three men; and then (finally) the feel-good, rah-rah stuff: moonwalks and rescued persons-to-be-played-by-Tom-Hanks-and-Co.

Shadow’s most obvious selling points are, natch, its most compelling. Real astronauts, real footage. Somehow, Sington rounded up 10 Apollo astronauts, including 8 of the 12 people on Earth who have ever walked on the Moon (names such as Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell should ring bells; Apollo 11 pilot Michael Collins is the sort of guy you want to listen to for hours), and got NASA to crack open its very-V.I.P. vault of astronaut-shot space footage, which has reportedly happened only a few times in three or four decades. And, to be sure, Shadow is often spectacular — so much so, in fact, that at times, it becomes nearly too difficult to process, or indeed, believe. The memory of an enormous, rolling, pocked-and-grey moon still has me shaking my head in wonderment.

So, what’s the problem, right? As much as I cringe to say it, some of it comes down to a dearth of style — I’ve been spoiled by the theatrics of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. That aside, though, Shadow doesn’t go into enough detail to keep me riveted, which would have made up for the other gripe. Some folks will undoubtedly love this, but to me, it played a bit like the best DVD featurette I’ve ever seen. •

In the Shadow of the Moon
Dir. David Sington; feat. Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Eugene Cernan, Michael Collins, Jim Lovell, Edgar D. Mitchell, Harrison Schmitt, Dave Scott, John Young (PG)

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