The world was a wacky place back in 1961. Emboldened--and perhaps terrified--by the Soviet Union managing to get cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space, United States president John F. Kennedy laid out a challenge to the scientists and test pilots of the fledgling NASA organization: put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. David Sington's In the Shadow of the Moon follows the triumphs and tribulations of the moon missions from Kennedy's challenge straight through to the success of the Apollo 11 landing.
Consisting of a tremendous amount of archival footage --including several Kennedy speeches, news broadcasts and many since-declassified NASA videos--alongside interviews with 10 surviving Apollo astronauts, In the Shadow of the Moon paints a very personal picture of what going to the moon actually entailed for the men involved. Presented with no narration whatsoever, the film is held together by occasional captions and the stories told by the astronauts. The result is one of the most revealing films about space travel in recent memory.
Despite covering territory already mined by feature films (Apollo 13) and miniseries (From the Earth to the Moon), In the Shadow of the Moon showcases the men and women who worked to put a dozen men on an object 384,000 kilometres away. In their own words, the men describe their training and preparation for their Apollo missions, along with providing some historical and cultural context. While the participants are all retired NASA personnel, the Apollo missions aren't gazed back upon with rose-coloured glasses--the tragic launch pad fire of Apollo 1 and near-tragic Apollo 13 mission are given plenty of examination, the latter via the recollection of mission commander Jim Lovell.
The film's greatest asset is the involvement of the astronauts: Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, Apollo 12's Alan Bean, Apollo 13's Lovell, Apollo 14's Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 15's David Scott, Apollo 16's John Young and Charles Duke and Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt. It's also sometimes the greatest flaw. All of the astronauts are fantastically interesting speakers, but they are all also similar-looking, old, white men. The film uses captions to identify each speaker, but the captions are used inconsistently throughout. The flaw is fairly minor, but becomes more glaring in segments where more than three old white dudes are talking at once.
Nevertheless, In the Shadow of the Moon allows the stories told by the astronauts to carry the narrative workload and slots in a series of cool visuals to support them wherever possible. Particularly effective was the footage of the charred remains of the Apollo 1 module following the fire that claimed the lives of all three of its crew. Director David Sington, editor David Fairhead and cinematographer Clive North all contribute to a great package. There's an especially well-done segment early in the film, introducing each of the astronauts by posing them in similar manners as footage of their younger selves. The rest of the film is put together in a similarly-effective manner.
Despite glossing over the eventual demise of the Apollo space program, the belief of a large chunk of the American population that the moon landings were a hoax and the current public indifference towards space travel, In the Shadow of the Moon is a tremendously entertaining and eye-opening look into the nitty-gritty of space travel. Ten old guys talk about going to the moon and it is a riveting experience. At the rate things are going, audiences can look forward to the inevitable follow-up film about travel to Mars in about 80 years.