Rocket Men

Reliving the glory of America's giant leap for mankind

Four decades ago, the American space program was synonymous with the pinnacle of human achievement. Thirty-eight years later, the program that punched a hole in the heavens barely dents the public consciousness. It took a vengeful astronaut in diapers to put NASA back on the nation's front pages this year — only to be eclipsed within weeks by another dizzy star falling from the Texas sky, Anna Nicole Smith.

"NASA is, at bottom, a myth-spinning public relations machine, a giant image factory whose principal goal is to hype metaphors of human frontiers — both physical and intellectual — in exchange for enormous sums of taxpayer money." So wrote Texas Monthly earlier this year, in a piece that lambasted the waste and needless risk of NASA in general and the deathtrap space shuttle in particular. Our been-there-done-that attitude toward space travel had ended the agency's main purpose: serving as a weapon of mass distraction.

As a well-timed corrective, now comes a British documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon, to restore the space program's luster. A stirring account of the Apollo program's mission to the moon, as remembered by some of the few men ever to view the Earth from the other end of a telescope, David Sington's doc recaptures the thrill, the terror, and the heroism of man hurling himself into the void.

The wide-eyed, square-jawed kid brother of the Manhattan Project's atom-age skullduggery, the U.S. space program was the smiling face of technocratic Cold War rivalry: tug-of-war as opposed to the nuclear Stratego being played off the Florida coast. In the Shadow of the Moon swiftly sketches the speed-up of the space race: Yuri Gagarin's pre-emptive flight in 1961, followed by Alan Shepard's orbital journey a month later, and JFK's challenge to seize the lead.

Soon the president is fallen — his passing hailed, in a shameless and spectacular bit of visual rhetoric, by a flag at half-mast framed against blue sky and the heavenward swipe of a vapor trail. The mission takes on new urgency, even if — to Apollo 8 and 13 vet Jim Lovell, one of the film's many sage talking heads — the many misfires and kablooey launches signaled "a quick way to a short career." But the test pilots of Apollo, one cool crop of cukes, had dreamed of pushing the envelope from childhood on. "It was a time when we made bold moves," one astronaut shrugs.

It was also a time when a diversion couldn't have come in handier. A chopper and a corny music cue usher in glimpses of student protest and hell-yeah clips of Operation Rolling Thunder cratering the Vietnamese countryside. The stock images of blooming fireballs queasily echo the blast-off shots, mirrored demonstrations of shock and awe through Yankee firepower. Meanwhile, the astronauts say, they were oblivious to the upheaval sweeping the country in the late 1960s — and as long as they were airborne, so too was everyone else.

And yet the movie's appeal — and NASA's — lies in the ennobling accomplishment of that one giant leap for mankind, a triumph that lifted the species with a single footprint in the lunar dust. The astronauts' laconic machismo in the face of this death-defying mission recalls The Right Stuff, without Tom Wolfe's mock-heroic only-angels-have-wings jive. But Sington's tone is elegiac and deferential. The movie contrasts the paradoxically down-to-earth reminiscences of Apollo vets Mike Collins, Gene Cernan, Buzz Aldrin, and the merry Alan Bean with footage of their youthful rocket-jockey selves, sometimes in the same frame. The extra beats that linger over their creased faces and speechless pauses as they remember the world beyond are faintly mystical — inner glimpses of men who have seen the inexpressible. Each appears humbled (or, like Aldrin, haunted) by his privileged view of man's true scale in the cosmos.

The stark HD interviews set off the movie's treasure trove of NASA archival footage, much of it unseen and/or synched up with sound for the first time. Apollo 11's moon landing represented the summit of scientific progress, but it also triggered a new post-Zapruder distrust in film as a recording medium: If Stanley Kubrick could fake all this stuff, why couldn't Uncle Sam? The spruced-up shots of space travel here won't win over Capricorn One adherents, but if these are special effects, they have a mundane serenity missing from subsequent decades of CGI — modules that disappear lazily into darkness, a POV from a lunar rover that's exhilarating even at bumper-car speed. No less alien are the fragments of cultural ephemera surrounding the mission, from the low-tech TV coverage ("The epic journey of Apollo 11 ... brought to you by Kellogg's!") to a sweetly awkward clip of Neil Armstrong's mama on I've Got a Secret.

Behind In the Shadow of the Moon's worshipful stance, a darker story peeks through, which only starts with future Apollo casualty Gus Grissom's reluctance to complain lest he be canned. But as Sington chronicles rocketry's role in the salving — or salvaging — of the American psyche, the romantic sweep of all this space-age chivalry is undeniable. Need a pick-me-up after the bitter foreign-policy failures reported in Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight? Here's every nation on earth — even the pouting Soviets — fixed on the comet of can-do U.S. optimism streaking into the stars. Even the French loved us then. In the Shadow of the Moon recalls the wondrous moment when America had the entire world looking up, up, and not away.

 
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