Hot Docs blasts off with In the Shadow of the Moon

The 2007 Hot Docs documentary film festival got underway last night with its splashy opening night gala presentation of David Sington's In the Shadow of the Moon. U.K.-produced and U.S.-themed, Moon is a panoramic look at the Apollo space program and what could be viewed by some people as the height of human achievement.

Admittedly, I'm a reformed space junkie. I was born at around the same time as the Space Shuttle program, and after devouring every little factoid I could about those spacecraft, I took a generational step backwards and looked at Apollo. What those people did back in the '60s, to capitalize on Kennedy's aw-shucks promise to land an American man on the moon by the end of the decade, borders on the mythic to me.

What's nice about In the Shadow of the Moon, then, is that it manages to strike the precise balance between dreamy reverence for the sheer magnitude of the Moon mission - people actually did this?! - and the on-the-ground charm of the nine surviving men who are alone among their species in having actually stood on another world. Through a series of canny interviews - notably, the astronauts address the camera directly, rather than an off-camera interviewer - we get to know the men of Apollo pretty well, at least in as much as you can get to know someone who talks to you passionately, and exclusively, about something they care very deeply about.

The film is structured as the story of Apollo 11, the big-ticket centerpiece of the Apollo series, which leads to an awkward detour here and there as the film tries to also place context around some of the other notable events of the program, without losing its key focus. (The segment on Apollo 13, the mission that failed, feels like the only serious misstep, a bit too short to be meaningful but too significant to be omitted altogether.)

On the whole, however, In the Shadow of the Moon is masterfully crafted around footage that dilates the pupils like crack cocaine. Much of the film material has been locked in NASA's basement for decades, only now being seen, and it is as exhaustive as it is absorbing. (Director David Sington notes, not immodestly, that one shot from inside a secondary booster as it falls back towards Earth is in its own way potentially the greatest single shot of film in cinema history.)

That the human stories around the missions can even compete with rarified filmic air of this type is a testament to the power of the adventures of these men, who through perhaps no more than luck and circumstance were given the opportunity to gain a perspective about life on Earth that no other humans can really match. In the Shadow of the Moon is a stirring evocation of a lost time in our history, when there was one more hill to climb, one last blank spot on the map, and where we all stood to learn and share the experience of reaching to the limits of our grasp.

In the Shadow of the Moon screens again this afternoon at 4:00 at the Isabel Bader Theatre.

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