Friday, December 17, 2010

"I enjoyed that time."

Since I'm still wrestling a cold, I thought better of going walkabout to look at Christmas lights during these chilly last few nights; instead, I curled up with In the Shadow of the Moon, a fine British-made documentary on the Apollo program. I found it so engaging that I watched it two nights in a row, the second with commentary (something I don't usually do). Aside from its sometimes gushing music, it's an absorbing work that sheds new light on one of the greatest achievements of the human race—and on some of the intriguing humans who pulled it off.

One thing that makes the film memorable is its use of remarkable footage that's been inexplicably sitting around in vaults for decades. E.g., there's a long sequence that was shot by an automated camera mounted inside the second stage on one of the early unmanned Apollo test missions, watching as the third stage separates and heads off into space while the second stage slowly rotates and the Earth heaves majestically into view on one side—just before the film roll ends and the camera ejects for its own journey home. (As with early spy satellites, the film canister was apparently plucked from the air as it descended by parachute.) The filmmakers call this the "money shot" for the film, and no wonder: it's so crisp and perfect that you'd swear it's a special-effects recreation, perhaps CGI or some unused footage from Kubrick's 2001, but no, what you're watching is real machines doing their real thing in real space sometime in the mid-1960s. There are a number of once-hidden treasures like this in the film, unseen by all but a handful of people until the filmmakers cannily dug them out, dusted them off, and wove them into this new chronicle.

But even more interesting are the interviews with some of the surviving Apollo astronauts. I think that one of my favorite human beings is now Michael Collins, the command module pilot on Apollo 11—the one who wasn't Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin and who didn't get to walk on the Moon. He's a witty, informative, enlightening presence throughout the film, but there's a particular sequence with him that is one of the most profoundly moving things I have ever seen. (Interestingly, the filmmakers also point to this as one of their favorite moments in the film.) Collins talks about the experience of being all alone in the command module as it orbited the Moon. He notes that someone referred to him as "the loneliest man in history," but he says that didn't feel loneliness at all (for one thing, he was in near-constant contact with Mission Control) but rather a great sense of awareness, even exaltation. He recalls being on the far side of the Moon and thinking (gesturing as if toward Earth) "there's three billion there, and" (gesturing as if toward the lunar surface) "there's two somewhere down there, and" (gesturing toward himself) "there's one here, and" (gesturing beyond) "then, God knows what." And then he says what, given the context, might be the most profound four-word sentence I have ever heard: "I enjoyed that time." Only a handful of humans have ever seen (and probably ever will see) the Dark Side of the Moon with their own two eyes; to hear Collins talk so matter-of-factly about his thoughts as he floated above it all alone is doubly sublime.

Another favorite moment comes in the film's coda, in which the various interviewees share how they were changed by the experience of going to the Moon. Pretty much all of them speak of a newfound appreciation for the Earth and how it might as well be the Garden of Eden when contrasted with the desolation of space that surrounds it, but Alan Bean takes the cake when he says something like "Since coming back from the Moon, I have never complained about the weather. Not even once." And I believe him.

Anyway. If you've got two hours to spare and are looking to rekindle your sense of wonder and your appreciation for your species, then there are worse places to be than In the Shadow of the Moon.

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