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Review: In the Shadow of the Moon

[This just in: Bob and Joel yammering at bloggingheads.]

[My article in today's Style section.]

Now, finally, we know what it was like to walk on the moon: unbelievably cool. Amazing. Fantastic. Scary. Forget all the engineering miracles: "In the Shadow of the Moon," which opens today, is a documentary that tells the human story of the astronauts who, decades ago, journeyed to an airless desert world nearly a quarter of a million miles away.

The stars of the film are 10 of the Apollo astronauts, the survivors of that great adventure, and they're total charmers. They're filmed in tight, high-def close-up, speaking directly into the camera. At first I found it a bit hard to distinguish one white-haired white guy from another. But their personalities emerge, and they all have gobs and gobs of that "Right Stuff" stuff.

Among the most winning is Alan Bean, from Apollo 12, who even now seems astonished that he walked on the moon. He also says something you don't expect to hear an astronaut say: That spaceflight is scary. He would look at that little window in the space capsule and tell himself, "If that window blows out, I'm dead in about a second."

And here's Mike Collins, reaching the gantry at Cape Kennedy where the huge Saturn V rocket -- looking like a giant bomb -- is poised to ignite and blast him off the Earth: "Suddenly, there's nobody there. You think, God, maybe they know something I don't know."

Edgar Mitchell relives for us the moments when he stomped around the moon's powdery gray surface: "Wow, what am I doing here? It was a different world. . . . Unbelievable. Unbelievable."

Charlie Duke: "The moon was the most spectacular, beautiful desert you could ever imagine."

The moon program has so often been a technocratic tale. Astronauts were stock heroes, by and large. This film shows them full of awe and wonder. Astronaut Dave Scott suggested to one of the producers that now would be a good time to round up the surviving Apollo crew members and record their thoughts. And so we learn that someone who visits a harsh, lifeless world will experience a new view of life here on Earth. "Boy, we're lucky to be here," Bean says. "Why do people complain about Earth? We are living in the Garden of Eden."

The archival footage -- remastered, we're told by the studio, and some never before used -- is mind-blowing. One shot, of a rocket booster separating and falling back toward Earth, is so arresting and beautiful that I couldn't

believe it wasn't cooked up in someone's computer. But it's all authentic. The producers had access to massive amounts of footage kept for decades in cans in cold storage. We see not only the images of rocket launches and moon-bouncing, but also clips of Walter Cronkite (I'd almost forgotten how resonant his voice was), ABC science correspondent Jules Bergman (breathless as he reports the tragic Apollo 1 fire) and President John F. Kennedy, who boldly proclaims that we'll put a man on the moon by the end of the decade even though it'll mean using technology that hasn't yet been invented.

Great moment: Buzz Aldrin, descending from the lunar module toward the moon's surface, takes a moment to, as he puts it, fill his urine bag. The footage shows Aldrin holding one leg away from the ladder as he pauses on the bottom step. It's hilarious. "Everyone has their firsts on the moon. That one hasn't been disputed," Aldrin deadpans.

We have a great behind-the-scenes glimpse of Neil Armstrong piloting a bizarre, helicopterish aircraft, the Spider, that is designed to teach him how to operate the lunar lander. And then suddenly, as the camera rolls, the Spider explodes -- kaboom! But Armstrong ejects just in time and parachutes to the ground. All very dramatic. Best part: Another astronaut sees Armstrong later that morning in his office, shuffling papers. I heard you ejected from the Spider this morning, the colleague says. Yeah, says Armstrong. No emotion. Ice water in the veins.

That comes in handy when, dropping toward the moon's surface in the lunar module, Armstrong and Aldrin see a warning light flash: The computer is overloaded. Armstrong then has to joystick the lander past menacing craters and boulders as his fuel is running dangerously low. The Eagle may crash. Even 38 years later the moment is so dramatic you may forget to breathe.

Armstrong has rarely spoken in public since the moon mission and didn't participate. David Sington, the director, has said that Armstrong nonetheless is at the center of the film, "a sort of astronaut Everyman." The film has very little about the engineering of the Apollo program. It's a film about astronauts, but I hungered for a little more about the technological challenges. And though it notes the Cold War motivations for the race to the moon, we learn nothing about the Soviet space program.

There are some narrative quirks: The story skips suddenly from Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon to, months later, the travails of Apollo 13, the doomed mission that became the subject of Ron Howard's rip-roaring movie. I wondered if the reels were out of order. But no: Much later, having bounced around and rovered upon the moon with many more astronauts, we're back at Apollo 11, with Armstrong and Aldrin, in July 1969, trying to blast off and rendezvous in orbit with the command module. Director Sington and his team chose a too extensive narrative detour through hyperspace. Overall, the film moves briskly and would be entertaining and educational for kids.

What a feat Apollo was. The film has a slightly wistful quality: Apollo's success was celebrated around the world. The Apollo 11 astronauts made a world tour, and ordinary people talked about how "we" had done this. "We," meaning the human race. Science and technology and astronautical gumption had captivated the world and perhaps, for a brief moment, united the planet.

Yeah: unbelievable.

In the Shadow of the Moon (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild profanity, brief violent images and incidental smoking.

By Joel Achenbach  |  September 14, 2007; 8:47 AM ET
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