By John Hartl
Special to The Seattle Times
If you've seen such NASA boosters as "For All Mankind," "Apollo 13" and "From the Earth to the Moon," do you really need to catch the latest one, "In the Shadow of the Moon," on the big screen?
In a word: Yes.
For one thing, you won't find previous NASA movies in theaters now. Also, this rousing documentary, which deals with NASA's missions to the moon between 1968 and 1972, arrives at a time when the country could use a morale booster. But it's especially exciting to see these images projected larger-than-life-size in a packed theater. Much of the material has never been seen outside of NASA storage vaults, and there are no computer images. As the closing credits point out, everything was shot on Earth, in space or on the moon.
A prizewinner earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, "Shadow" is a British filmmaker's unabashedly adoring salute to a great moment in American history. The director, David Sington, has created the most personal and poetic of all the NASA movies to date.
Deciding not to use a conventional narrator, Sington allows the surviving astronauts to tell the story in their own words.
Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins and Charlie Duke are particularly eloquent when they're talking about their feelings before and after the missions were accomplished. Exaltation, guilt, fear and spirituality all register strongly.
The only missing voice among the survivors is Neil Armstrong, although his fellow astronauts discuss his choices and instincts so worshipfully that he almost doesn't need to make an appearance. Rarely does a reclusive character make such a vivid impression.
Some of the trippier images, including a spectacular slow-motion rocket launch that seems to engulf an American flag with sparks, would not be out of place in "Koyaanisqatsi" (one of Sington's acknowledged inspirations) or the more hallucinatory moments in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Although Sington concentrates on the first of the six moon landings, Apollo 11 in July 1969, he includes plenty of context: President Kennedy's remarkably specific early-1960s speech about the dangers the astronauts will face, the grim story of the three astronauts who were burned to death on the launching pad in 1967, the near-disastrous voyage of Apollo 13 in 1970.
Sington and his cast do have a sense of humor, but they save it mostly for the end credits, as the astronauts answer claims that the moon landings were all scripted and choreographed in a studio.
As one of them points out, why would they have faked it so many times?