Plenty of science-fiction films deal with time travel, but how often do you see a real live time warp at the movies?
"In the Shadow of the Moon" is just such a time warp, artfully blending unvarnished footage from America's moonshots with present-day tales from the astronauts who made those trips — and who have lived long enough to absorb deep lessons from the experience.
We've heard some of the tales before, in dramatic re-creations as well as vintage documentaries. But as you watch those young men of the 1960s — and as you see those same men in 2007, now with white hair and tanned, lined faces — you get a sense that "In the Shadow of the Moon" could be one of the last great testaments from the greatest generation of spaceflight.
"These guys are the ultimate realists. They can do the math," the film's director, David Sington, told msnbc.com. "A couple of them more or less said, 'Well, that's it. I've done my big interview.' I don't think any one film can be considered the definitive record of Apollo — but if you take what's behind the film, which is 60 hours of interviews that we did with these people, that, I think, is an important resource."
"In the Shadow of the Moon" goes into its first limited release on Friday and will gradually roll out to more theaters in coming weeks, but it's already benefiting from positive buzz: It won an award at the Sundance Film Festival, received a promotional boost from Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard (who is "presenting" the film) and is being mentioned as an early Oscar contender in its own right.
"From our perspective, it's already been fantastically successful," Sington said.
He said the film was the brainchild of Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott, who walked on the moon himself in 1971 and is among the 10 astronauts interviewed for the film. "Dave's idea was to get everybody together to talk about Apollo to preserve the legacy," Sington said.
Every living moonwalker agreed to on-camera interviews, save one: Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the lunar surface. The publicity-shy Armstrong reportedly declined the invitation because he didn't want to dwell on his personal experiences yet again — an explanation that Sington accepted diplomatically.
The interviews do get personal at times, even earthy: Buzz Aldrin, who was Armstrong's fellow traveler on the moon in 1969, recalls pausing and "slightly filling up the urine bag" as he was about to step on the surface. "Everyone has their firsts on the moon — and that one hasn't been disputed by anyone," says Aldrin, now 77.
More often, the observations take a philosophical turn: Aldrin, who struggled with alcoholism after his return to Earth, reflects on how he felt he had to uphold the heroic image of a moonwalker "for the rest of my life, no matter what I do."
Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, who was the last man to leave the moon's surface in 1972, admits to having a "guilt complex" over being at NASA while his Navy mates were in Vietnam. "I've always felt that they fought my war for me," he says.
And when Apollo 8's Jim Lovell discusses his mission in 1968, you get a feeling of nostalgia for the days when NASA really went where no human had gone before. Lovell noted that the plan was changed from a round-the-Earth practice trip to an unprecedented round-the-moon trip. "It was a bold move. It had some risky aspects to it," he says in the film. "But it was a time when we made bold moves."
Some of the best lines come from Apollo 11's Mike Collins, who circled the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the surface below. After the return to Earth, the Apollo 11 trio received accolades from around the world, Collins recalls: "People, instead of saying, 'Well, you Americans did it,' everywhere they said, ‘We did it. We, humankind, we, the human race, we, people, did it. ... And I thought that was a wonderful thing — ephemeral, but wonderful."
"In the Shadow of the Moon" is more than just a bunch of talking heads: In addition to the iconic shots of launches and landings, the film presents some scenes that have been sitting unseen in NASA archives for more than 30 years. Silent footage from Mission Control was meticulously lip-synched with audio recordings to produce a sight-and-sound record that didn't exist before.
Sington made a point of using the archival footage as is, without the dramatic re-creations or computer wizardry often seen in space sagas. "There is not a frame that has been digitally fiddled with in any way whatsoever," he said.
That means you sometimes see greenish scratches that were made by moondust as the film ran through the astronaut's cameras, or light flares, or the run-out of a film's sprockets at the end of a roll. "There were odd moments when that run-out actually tells you something," Sington said — for example, when a scene ends just as a rocket stage drops back toward Earth.
Other 1960s footage gives you a sense of the social milieu that surrounded the moonshots: the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, Walter Cronkite on the news, and Neil Armstrong's parents on "I've Got a Secret" (brought to you by Dream Whip).
Let's do the time warp again
The time-warp effect might be enough to pull you in, even if you're not fascinated by the spacey subject matter. It's a kick to see 71-year-old Charlie Duke talking about his Mission Control role during the Apollo 11 landing, while on the other side of the split screen you see the 33-year-old Duke doing the things that the old guy is talking about.
And if you are fascinated by the Apollo adventure, you'll definitely want to spend 100 minutes in the "Shadow." Aldrin said even he learned something new from the other astronauts in the movie. "I've heard these guys talk about things that I've never heard them talk about before, on camera as part of the show," he said on NBC's TODAY show.
There's more to come in the months and years ahead:
- Another documentary film, "The Wonder of It All," covers the same Apollo time frame from a different perspective.
- Sington said more video from the astronaut interviews will be added to the DVD version of "In the Shadow of the Moon," and the whole 60 hours will be archived for future distribution.
- Sington is also working on a documentary TV series for the Discovery Science Channel, provisionally titled "Moon Machines," that will extend the "Shadow" approach to the engineers behind NASA's space effort.
Aldrin told msnbc.com that he's trying to organize gatherings for former astronauts as the 40th and 50th anniversaries of space milestones roll around. This year, for instance, marks the golden anniversary of Sputnik and the start of the space race. NASA's 50th anniversary comes next year, and then there are the Mercury flights, the Gemini flights, and eventually Apollo.
Aldrin hopes that future reunions, like "In the Shadow of the Moon," will help keep the Apollo legacy alive until humans walk on the moon again — even though he's not sure he'll be around when the next giant leap finally happens.
"We're beginning to fade in time now," he said. "I don't think too many are going to be around at the 50th anniversaries of our flights, or going to be around to witness people reaching the moon again."
An earlier version of this report mischaracterized Lovell's role on Apollo 8.