Apollo program brought to life in documentary

Posted: September 21, 2007

From space, says Jim Lovell, commander of the star-crossed Apollo 13 mission, you could block out the cloud-swirled sphere of Earth just by holding up your thumb. Gone, presto, into the void.

Mike Collins, the astronaut who remained in the command module while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took those small steps for mankind back in 1969, talks about how fragile Earth looked from afar: a tiny gem glinting in endless black.

In the Shadow of the Moon is, quite simply, a revelation. With no portentous celebrity narration - just the talking heads of Lovell, Collins and eight of their Apollo brethren - this fascinating documentary recalls the bold mandate set forth by President John F. Kennedy to put a man on the lunar surface by the end of the 1960s. Amazingly, despite lethal failures, technology that now looks laughingly primitive, and a world quaking with catastrophe, the job was done.

And these guys did it.

British filmmaker David Sington deftly mixes the astronauts' interviews (Alan Bean: jolly; Edgar Mitchell: profound) with archival footage from NASA and the TV networks (Walter Cronkite - could he be God?). Perhaps because their accomplishments were so extraordinary, and their temperaments so cool, In the Shadow of the Moon has no need for overstatement, no time for bombast. Even the beautiful score (by Philip Sheppard) is used to provide punctuation notes, not emotional cues.

Armstrong, famously reclusive, is conspicuous by his absence. But his fellow spacemen pick up the slack, telling a tale that says much about America then and now, about the powers of science, the courage of man, and the possibilities of a higher force. From the unique vantage these men had, a deep and different perspective.

In the Shadow of the Moon ****(out of four stars)

Directed by David Sington. With Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Mike Collins, Jim Lovell and Edgar Mitchell. Distributed by ThinkFilm.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.

Parent's guide: PG (adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Five and Showcase at Ritz Center/NJ.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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