Although I was only seven at the time, I can clearly remember where I was at 2.56am on July 21, 1969—staring raptly at the television screen almost not daring to blink. My mother would later argue that it was more important for my education to see man walk on the Moon than anything they could teach me at school, so I’d been allowed to stay up very until the wee small hours and she kept me out of school the following day (the headmaster wasn’t so sure). She’d probably be taken to court these days, although I can imagine her impassioned speech in her defence. Little did she know she’d sewn the seeds of a life-long passion in me.
So you can imagine my response to In The Shadow of the Moon, which charts the story of the Apollo programme intercut by interviews with the surviving astronauts from all the Moon missions. It’s sobering to realise how few men remain alive who have set foot on another world and that they’re now all in their seventies (Neil Armstrong was 39 when he set foot on the lunar surface – hard to believe in this age of obsession with youth). Not that they don’t look hale and hearty, but they’re almost at the point where you can list their names ticking off the fingers of both hands.
In an age where we’re able to see flights to other planets every day on TV or in films, we forget just how dangerous and precarious the whole business was. They strapped themselves in a flimsy tin can to several million tons of rocket fuel and launched themselves into the unknown. Nuts—and forever heroic. There was no guarantee they’d get to the Moon nor that they would return—and it was all done with a computer your mobile would turn its nose up at, slide rules and boundless courage and optimism.
Although we know how those momentous events turned out, the film manages to make keep you on the edge of your seat throughout and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one mentally willing the Apollo 11 Lunar module to land safely (if they’d asked us to clap if we believed, we’d all have applauded away).
The only lunar visitor who doesn’t appear is the reclusive Neil Armstrong, which helps as it keeps the focus on all of them, not just on the one who happened to be first. It’s interesting to hear the astronauts agree that he was probably the best choice—and I think they’re mostly secretly glad they haven’t had all the interest he received.
The astronauts are all articulate, funny they’re all funny but Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo clown, most of all. I can’t relate his story about the first thing he did on the Moon here, but it brought the house down) and self-deprecating as they entertainingly relate their experiences and describe how going to the Moon has changed them. They’re so unalike, but at the same time all united in their innate decency and belief that they could make the dream happen. Strikingly intelligent, they worked on the craft they flew, helping to iron out problems (each member of the crew took responsibility for different systems). And even when they knew things might not work out, they were so desperate to achieve the goal that they went ahead anyway—Gus Grissom, one of the astronauts killed in a launch-pad fire, had raised doubts about the safety of the wiring in the 100% oxygen atmosphere of the capsule, but didn’t dare complain for fear of being thrown out of the programme for having a negative attitude.
And oh, the ravishing footage that tells the story. Some of it never seen before and all of it recently restored and digitised by NASA. We take for granted the view of the Sun peeking around the Earth, but if weren’t for these guys, we’d never have seen it.
I’ve never heard a cinema full of jaded journalists applaud a film before, but this uplifting gem absolutely deserved it. And me? I had tears in my eyes throughout, and sat rapt and hardly daring to breathe once more.