Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It must have been moonglow...

I've always been fascinated with outer space.

Guess it's that little boy sliver of childhood -- I have that to thank for my love of baseball too -- that never quite goes away. What American child born after 1960 hasn't at one time or another put a big bowl on your head and pretended to be an astronaut, the last American cowboy, touching down in the Sea of Tranquility?

Saw an absolutely fantastic documentary tonight about the biggest of all the NASA heroes --- the Apollo astronauts. "In the Shadow of the Moon" is the story of that special space mission, told in the words of the surviving astronauts themselves.

Well, all except in the words of the guy, the one we all want to hear from, that ever-reclusive Neil Armstrong. It's OK, though, because the other guys -- Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins among them -- all talk about him. And he's here, sort of, in archival NASA footage. (And, frankly, it adds to Armstrong's mystique that he wouldn't participate. Legends don't do such things.)

It's that archival footage, though, that makes this documentary quite special. You see a shot of Armstrong's famous one small step from an angle you've never seen before. And there are no CGI enhancements, no computer-generated images here. This is the real thing, baby, warts and all.

The film does a nice job of placing the Apollo program -- and its famous July 1969 Apollo 11 landing -- into historical perspective. We see a fresh-faced John F. Kennedy, promising the nation we'd land an astronaut on the moon by the end of the decade. Vietnam, protests, unrest -- all of that is here -- peppered around the big mission.

And, yes, it still captures the imagination. Maybe it's because we've not been back to the moon since '72. Maybe it's because space really is the final frontier, the one last place we've never been. Probably it's because this mission, now nearly 40 years old, is still better than anything George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry ever dreamed up.

The darn thing even turns out to be quite moving, when the various Apollo crew members talk of how insignificant the earth seems way out there in the blue -- and how precious it is to come home to.

You learn, one of them says, that we're wasting our most precious resource. "We should be concerned about (conserving the earth) for our kids and grandkids," one of them says. "And instead what are we worried about? The price of a gallon of gas."

If there's anything to criticize in this fine film, it's that you are left wanting more. Apollo 11 dominates the narrative (complete with CBS News footage of a spellbound Walter Cronkite calling the action that July 20). The movie hurries over the troubled Apollo 13 mission and doesn't really tell us what happened on the rest of the moon trips.

The striking thing about this movie is seeing how wowed the rest of the world was at America's little moon landing. Mike Collins says the most used word he heard on the around-the-world trip that he, Aldrin and Armstrong made after returning home, was "we."

We did that. All of us. Neil, Buzz and Mike took our hopes and dreams and fears up there with them.

"I always trusted the Americans," a French woman said after the landing. "I knew they'd get it right."

When on earth would you hear that today?

"In the Shadow of the Moon" is an important slice of history. It stirs up the star spangled optimism that this country used to be known for, and could be again. It makes me want to take a weekend off and finally read "First Man," James R. Hansen's 2005 authorized biography of Armstrong.

But mostly it reminds me of the wonderful unknown that lies way out yonder somewhere, and leads me to feel certain that someday, somehow, another generation's Neil, Buzz and Mike will fly out there and touch that undiscovered country.

Because that's simply what Americans do.

"In the Shadow of the Moon" is now playing at Regal CinemaArt Downtown West 8. It is rated PG.

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