In the Shadow of the Moon may not be the most radical or revelatory documentary ever made, but if the point was to get out of the way of some true American badasses and let them tell their story, then it should be counted as a success.
The DVD edition is introduced by co-producer Ron Howard, whom, along with Tom Hanks, is an avowed space-nut and maker of the great Hollywood retelling of the Apollo 13 mission. He doesn’t address the big question: why a big theatrical documentary on NASA’s Apollo Program, now? Is it simply that the aforementioned true American badasses are frankly getting on a bit, and that this is one last chance for them to strut their Right Stuff?
The biggest clue is that the film takes pains to place the missions in a historical and political context of the Cold War, civil rights, the Viet Nam War, and the spate of assassinations the country suffered in the late sixties. When Kennedy called in 1961 for NASA to land a man on the moon within the decade, it was a truly audacious and inspiring moment. As astronaut Gene Cernan put it, “science fiction.” The almost incalculable amounts of money and impetuous were there, surviving even the assassination of the man that inspired the astonishing endeavor.
Time passes. Walls fall, the White House falls afoul of diminishing returns. Subtract the Cold War space race with the Soviet Union, and NASA reduces its ambition to decades of launching spy & corporate satellites and performing zero-g experiments in the Space Shuttle (although I must say detecting anti-matter sounds pretty cool), losing the Apollo 11 tapes, and apparently too busy with constant maintenance on the International Space Station to do anything else.
In 2004, Bush makes a fool out of himself by calling for NASA to land American boots on Mars by 2020. This time an entire nation rolls its eyes and knows it’s a flimsy, sparkly distraction from the many disasters of his term of office (and this, before Katrina). Maybe I’m stretching things to fine a political critique in the timing of this film, but that’s my theory. It’s a kick in the pants – in a time of crew cuts, tail fins, and assassinations, the United States landed on the freaking moon nine freaking times.
As a nobody web designer, I don’t mean to diminish the work of post-Apollo rocket scientists and brave astronauts; only that the momentum kick-started by Kennedy has sputtered out by almost any measure. After all, what has NASA done lately that one might call, bug-eyed, “science fiction”? I do love the Mars explorer robots Pathfinder, Spirit, and Opportunity, though! I love robots on Mars. Robots on Mars are neat-o, man. Hi, robots on Mars!
One gripe: In the Shadow of the Moon has a cheesy score, especially disappointing in light of Brian Eno & Daniel Lanois’ gorgeous music for For All Mankind, a documentary film of lunar footage from the Apollo missions.