'In The Shadow of the Moon' is British director David Sington' documentary on the Apollo lunar landing missions. Consisting of extensive archive footage and interviews with some of the twelve men who actually walked on the moon's surface, it is a worthwhile and interesting, if somewhat methodical, exploration of the subject that will thrill aficionados but ultimately lacks the universal appeal that would have been appropriate to the subject matter.
Beginning in the 1950s, during the early days of the space race, the films takes in major incidents such as the experimental unmanned launches, John F. Kennedy's assassination, the loss of the three astronauts in a ground explosion in the early days of the project, the eventual successful landings on the moon, and the Apollo 13 incident.
Unfortunately, perhaps because of the scale of the project, it tends to meander along. The pace is neither fast enough to excite nor slow enough to create a feeling of in-depth investigation, and there is also a dull uniformity in tone – although the use of captions instead of a narrator would normally be welcome, it somehow doesn't quite work here. Because each event feels much the same as the next, there is no 'build' in the narrative arc, and no successful climax. Ultimately, although the terrific archive footage is enticing, the film is a partial success in spite rather than because of the direction.
Sington might argue that he has decided to let the material speak for itself, but the fact remains that 'In The Shadow of the Moon' is highly unimaginative even when it attempts to break out of 'National Geographic' mode, and there is a conspicuous failure to fully flesh out the themes that suggest themselves. Whatever the directorial intent, this has the effect of leaving potentially interesting avenues hanging, awaiting exploration.
Some (not, by any means, all) of the contributors are undeniably of interest. Michael 'Mike' Collins, the man who flew to the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin but stayed in the lunar module while his colleagues explored the surface, is perhaps the best value for money. Articulate and engaging, he is a communicator capable of getting complex and interesting points across in plain speech with an irascible charm. Of the rest, Buzz Aldrin is eccentric but still impressive, Charlie Duke is sympathetic and possessed of obvious integrity, while the authoritative and charismatic Apollo 13 captain Jim Lovell seems almost underused. The glaring lack is that of Neil Armstrong, who appears only via archive footage and in the descriptions of his fellow astronauts.
There are also several remarkable revelations. It is fascinating to learn that Jim Lovell read aloud from Chapter 1 of Genesis during his Apollo 8 (moon orbital) mission, for example, while Buzz Aldrin reveals his own unique 'first' on the moon. The interviewees' perspectives on such topics as the moon landings unifying effect on global culture are also thought provoking.
Ultimately, this film is a missed opportunity rather than a failure. At one point, former astronaut Alan Bean, says 'this was a big deal'. He's right, it was, but it still awaits a worthy documentary treatment.