The Apollo missions to the moon between 1968 and 1972 haven't gone unrecognized onscreen, from documentary treatments like From The Earth To The Moon and For All Mankind to accomplished features like The Right Stuff or Apollo 13. The Apollo astronauts, whom Pauline Kael famously referred to as "walking apple pies," are a reliable recipe for inspiration, and the adventures of men in space drum up all sorts of interesting philosophical and political issues. The big problem with In The Shadow Of The Moon, a modest, thoroughly conventional look at the Apollo program, is that it's nothing more ambitious than a cable-ready rehash of NASA history. Director David Sington focuses entirely on the astronauts' experience, and he's assembled most of these thoughtful and sometimes irascible men for talking-head interviews, which is admittedly a major coup. But these are old stories told with minimal artistry, and the film lacks the vision that might separate it from a crowded field.
Still, In The Shadow does have the distinction of bringing together a remarkable group of men for what will likely be their final testimonial on the subject. To a person, they've all been changed into amateur philosophers by the rare, humbling experience of seeing the Earth from space, and their awed reflections are undeniably powerful. Keeping the political context to a minimum, the film gets into the nuts-and-bolts of the missions and the extraordinary danger and uncertainty of carrying them out. Within a five-year period, nine American spacecraft voyaged to the moon and 12 astronauts walked on its surface, though the greatest chunk of time is understandably devoted to the mission that got there first.
Other than the astronauts' participation, the film's other chief selling point is a wealth of archival footage culled and remastered from the NASA archive. Yet here, too, there's none of the poetry of For All Mankind, just visual support for a meat-and-potatoes recap of events that have already been chewed over plenty. The men are all fascinating; someone should make a separate documentary about the hilariously frisky Buzz Aldrin, who admits to eliminating in his spacesuit before descending the stairs on the lunar module. But In The Shadow Of The Moon fails to honor their vision with one of its own.