“In the Shadow of the Moon” will not keep you in the dark for even a second. Constructed around surviving Apollo crew members’ recollections of the first moon landing and the expeditions that followed it, David Sington’s riveting documentary mixes interview bits with archival footage to shed light on one of the defining moments in 20th century history.
Thankfully, “Shadow” focuses on the human, rather than the scientific or technological aspect of the missions. It’s one thing to dig up impressive shots of rocket launches and images of Earth, but it’s quite another to add personal accounts and genuine emotions described by the very people who experienced the Apollo missions firsthand. The movie has such a candid, genuine feel and flows like a real story rather than a splicing of dry facts.
Crew members touch upon a variety of topics, from the strictly personal to the downright funny or ridiculous. Michael Collins, by far the most animated and articulate of the crew, talks about what it felt like to be the one member of the Apollo 11 mission that stayed behind and never set foot on the moon. Buzz Aldrin, in a fit of honesty, discloses how he took the rare opportunity to pee (in his “pee bag”) during the first seconds of landing on the moon. These are just two examples of behind-the-scenes trivia that you’ll get to hear as the film progresses, and they’re not the only ones worth checking out, either.
Another plus of the movie is, despite having a generally uplifting tone, it does not close its eyes to the failures that went along with the success stories. The film discloses that the first three Apollo astronauts died horribly in a fire while doing tests on earth, likely caused by bad wiring. Additionally, one of the crew members admits to having a “guilt complex” for doing the space program while all his buddies were in Vietnam “fighting [his] war for [him].”
“Shadow” finds the right balance between archival and interview footage and sticks to it till the end. The film does linger on some events more than others, but for the most part, the emphasis falls where it should. The pace is by no means rushed, but still feels dynamic and falls smoothly along a (mostly) chronological line.
Unfortunately for the filmmakers, the infamously reclusive Neil Armstrong refused to participate, leaving the movie bereft of its key character. While this swelling black hole caused by Armstrong’s absence could not be avoided, there are other issues that cast a shadow on this otherwise masterfully executed documentary. During the last half-hour or so, the movie loses its pace and coherency and seems to ramble, becoming unnecessarily touchy-feely and pseudo-philosophical. As the astronauts talk about God, the insignificance and vulnerability of our small “jewel of Earth” and the “epiphanies” they had, you can’t help but wonder why film editor David Fairhead didn’t cut this extraneous footage, as it adds nothing significant to the movie and feels almost like an irrelevant post-script.
Speaking of not-too-successful insertions in the movie, the main story about Apollo 11 gets interrupted right after the landing episode by footage and commentary on subsequent missions, only to resume later with its second part — the trip back. While incredibly beautiful and interesting, the footage from other missions disrupts the flow of the movie and detracts attention from the focus. At the very least, the other missions could have been presented after the entire account of the first one was finished, which would have made much more sense chronologically … and logically.
Despite these flaws, “Shadow” definitely lands on the bright side of the moon.