The next documentary I saw after the highly engaging and amusing King of Kong was In The Shadow of the Moon. If the former was about a handful of guys obsessing over a trivial accomplishment (about as trivial an accomplishment possible while still being noteworthy, if that makes sense), this film is about a handful of guys downplaying what are arguably the greatest adventures that homo sapiens ever undertook.
This documentary simply interviews the surviving astronauts about the Apollo program, providing enough backdrop so that someone fairly ignorant of the times can grasp the magnitude of what was done, and some idea of why. The conspicuously absent Neil Armstrong in a strange way typifies the low-key attitude of the astronauts. Some call him a recluse but as is pointed out in the film, he apparently leads a public life in his current hometown of Lebanon, Ohio. He’s just not in to the whole celebrity thing, God bless him.
NASA has fallen into a certain degree of disrepute of late–they are, of course, a government bureaucracy, and those don’t get better over time–but it’s helpful to note that they accomplished the impossible: They put men on the moon and got them off alive again. Using computers less powerful than the one in your TV remote.
For me, it’s the “getting them off again alive” that’s the most impressive. It’s one thing to drop a can with a couple of guys in it onto a rock a few hundred thousand miles away. It’s another thing for that can to land safely on a less-than-paved surface. And I can almost get behind the conspiracy theories, when you tell me that teeny-tiny lifted back off and met up with another teeny-tiny can that was orbiting around at hundreds of miles per hour.
And they talk less trash than Billy Mitchell. Far from thinking they were hot stuff, they tended to just view each other as regular guys. In part, this would have to be because they were all top-tier, so it had to be hard to impress each other. (Though Armstrong managed, at one point, by following up morning of near-death catastrophe with an afternoon of paperwork.) In part, though, I suspect it was due to a respect for the forces they were dealing with, all of which cast the human body into its frighteningly frail perspective.
As a result, I wasn’t surprised that the film ended with them talking philosophy, God and religion. They confronted more space in those few hours than most of us can even conceive. (I recall stories of early European settlers looking out across the Great Plains and vomiting upon seeing so much empty space. Yeah, multiply that by a thousand, and then square it since the space extends in almost every way you can look.)
Only the very end of the film, during the credits, do they talk about the whole conspiracy theory angle, but unfortunately no clip of Buzz Aldrin socking a guy.
If King of Kong is an example of engaging storytelling on a minor topic, this movie is an example of spare storytelling on a huge topic. Next, I’ll look at a documentary that combines some engaging storytelling with a completely different sort of huge topic.