It would seem that in order for a documentary to make a kind of dent at the box office these days it must be political in nature. In recent years, there’s been Bowling for Columbine (2002), The Fog of War (2003) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006). The fact that In the Shadow of the Moon isn’t driven by politics might be the most refreshing aspect of the film.
Focusing on the Apollo space missions, the documentary could have easily turned into a treatise on the greatness of America or how we really stuck it to the Soviets. And while those aspects are there (it would be impossible for them not to be in some capacity, given the topic), it’s not so much a film about America as a film about humanity as a whole, namely our ability to accomplish seemingly whatever we set our minds to. And while the film is not political in nature, it’s impossible not to draw parallels to how much America—not to mention the way in which the world—has changed in the intervening 38 years since Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon. It’s also a film that makes you wonder what happened to that “giant leap” humankind took almost four decades ago, and whether or not it was nothing more than a missed opportunity.
Through the use of old footage and, more importantly, the stories of the Apollo astronauts themselves (minus, unfortunately, the reclusive Armstrong), the film is able to create an expressive and humane, personable look at a monumental point in history whose scope is too often taken for granted. At the same time, director David Sington never allows the film to become too reverent; in fact, it’s often genuinely funny—take Buzz Aldrin’s claim that he was the first man to urinate on the moon or the usage of the old CBS News footage of “The Journey to the Moon, Sponsored by Kellogg’s.” While Sington focuses on the human aspect of the space program, the film is never overtly sentimental or too sappy; instead, it’s simple and honest in a way few films are. It never allows itself to become about America; it’s a collection of the stories of the men who went to the moon, and ultimately, the ways in which the experience changed them. It helps that all those involved are affable and interesting people who don’t depict their situation as being anything more than being in the right place at the right time, not to mention expressing that they themselves do not see their involvement in the space program as anything more than luck.
In the Shadow of the Moon is not about the science or the reasons behind the expedition. It never raises the question of whether or not going to the moon was prudent or needed. It’s about the people involved and their need to pioneer, while the danger involved is never sold short. The film doesn’t reinvent the documentary, but it is simple and elegant (who thought old NASA-stock footage could be used so effectively and beautifully?), and the things it does well, it manages to do extremely well. For anyone who wants a nostalgic look at what the space program was or possibly could be still—not to mention a reminder of the ability of humanity to accomplish the seemingly impossible—this is a must-see. Rated PG for mild language, brief violent images and incidental smoking.