From 1969 till 1972, there were nine missions sent to the Moon, and around a dozen astronauts on those missions were able to walk on the satellite's surface. They remain the only men to have ever have done so, and this documentary brings most of them to the screen to talk about their experiences, from being picked as test pilots to their time as pioneers and heroes of the entire population of this planet when they set foot upon a world other than Earth. Their stories are brought to life with a wealth of footage taken both on Earth and in space.
In the Shadow of the Moon was made to capture the tales of these astronauts before they were not around to tell them anymore, and in that goal they succeeded admirably. Every clip of them brings something fascinating, whether it's an insight into their missions, or the way the world was feeling back during those four years the space program was sending men up to the Moon, or simply a snapshot of precisely what it was like to be at the spearhead of what was then the farthest reaches of human endeavour. There are no reconstructions, as director David Sington allows these men to speak for themselves.
It's an approach that may be uncomplicated, but pays back dividends to the audience because it shows how effective the more tried and true method of plain documentaries can beat a more adorned and complex one. This does not need actors playing out the roles or computer graphics filling the screen, especially when the personalities are enough to carry the viewer's interest, not to mention the footage of spacecraft taking off, and in the early stages failing to take off at all, the lunar landscape looming up as the Earth recedes to the size of a button in the inky blackness of space, and the astronauts investigating their new environment, even if it was only for no more than three days in most cases.
And the context this film places those events in is well portrayed, as the interviewees do not allow us to forget that if they had not been flying to the Moon, they would have been flying bombing raids over Vietnam. That conflict, along with the turmoil in the United States at the time, is always there in the background whether it is being referred to or not. President John F. Kennedy made the announcement that they planned to take their nation to the Moon before the sixties were over, but of course he never got to see that, and the year before the first landing had been an especially harrowing one with the other assassinations and uprisings. So a high such as putting mankind up there in the sky was not only preferable, but absolutely vital.
As the film progresses, and the men being talked to reflect on their time in the heavens, a sense of the cosmic takes over where you share their feeling of the world's paradoxical significance and insignificance. Conspicuous in his absence was Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon who had become a recluse by the time this was made, but the impression of his personality is that he was an ice-cool individual who would not buckle under pressure; even so, his enigma only gains by his reticence to talk about his importance in history. If anyone emerges as a star here other than Armstrong, it's the chap who stayed in the module, Michael Collins, who proves immensely engaging as he regales you with his accounts, from being alone on the far side of the Moon while in orbit to his profound grasp of being at one with Universe. But really, all of this is absorbing stuff, straightforwardly presented yet still with that awestruck tone. Music by Philip Sheppard.