the better truth

the better truth

Monday, October 22, 2007

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)

Shoot the Moon

I was seven years old when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the lunar surface. My mother tried to wake me to watch the event on TV but I decided to stay in bed. My initial indifference gave way to the universal space frenzy. Months later I was one of thousands who stood in line for hours at the Museum of Natural History in New York to witness one of the great marvels of the moment - a moon rock. This unimpressive pebble now sits, barely noticed, just across town in the lobby of the United Nations. It would be impossible to explain to today's seven year olds why anyone would patiently cue-up to see a rock; just as it is hard for middle aged Americans to recreate the unabashed national optimism which they felt as young children. Looking back on that time today's adults know that they lived in a world as far away as the moon.

Ron Howard started his career in feel-good nostalgia. He was a child actor in Andy Griffith's "Mayberry RFD". This 1960s family drama, although set in the 1950s, recreated an ideal small town America of the 1930s. This soothing paean to simple times and easy living was a huge hit in the days of revolution, hippies, race riots and an unpopular war. Mr. Howard continues this formula of success. He documents the unabashed exuberance generated by NASA's moon missions for a contemporary public awash in economic uncertainty, religious fanaticism, environmental catastrophe and an unpopular war.

"In the Shadow of the Moon" is the reality version of Howard's popular dramatic feature "Apollo 13". Here are the men behind the mission. It is unfortunate that Presidents Eisenhower's formula for "the right stuff" demanded respectability and education. No doubt the founding fathers of test flight, Chuck Yeager et al, would have made for a more exciting film. Yeager broke the sound barrier while flying with broken ribs from a riding accident a few days before. He hide his injury from his superiors and was in such pain that he was unable to close the hatch of his Bell X-1 without assistance. He was chosen for the flight because another pilot was suspended for buzzing a friend's car in a fighter-jet the day before. The politicians felt that to muster the funds for this Cold War era moon extravaganza the leading men needed to be "college men"; not "crackers". The Apollo crews certainly possessed the same gritty verve and courage but also had education and a sense of decorum. You could count on them to attend a White House dinner and not wreck the furniture or make a pass at the First Lady. The polish, which certainly won the hearts of the public, makes for slow-going in a behind-the-scenes look. There is nothing overtly disagreeable about these obviously accomplished, brave, faithful men but creating dramatically compelling characters requires a bit of "the wrong stuff". It is no wonder that the 19th century actors cued up to play the villains and avoided the pious "George Washington" incarnation. The filmmakers obviously sensed that the main event needed garnish - hence the large card titles which dutifully explain something along the lines of: THESE ARE THE ONLY MEN EVER IN THE HISTORY OF TIME TO ACTUALLY EXPERIENCE A COMPLETELY OTHER WORLD. It appears not only in the opening sequence but returns before the closing credits to remind audiences who might feel a lack of lift-off after the Apollo men have spoken. Ironically there is a layer of disquietude in the sea of tranquility. In between the faded off-color grainy stylishly unstylish flashbacks and the formulaic TV show talk-head interviews, is a strange silence. It's name is Neil Armstrong.

Neil Armstrong does not participate in a THE documentary feature which purports to tell the story of NASA's Moon Mission via interviews with living astronauts. In other words - we're going to examine Niagara Falls: without the water. There are no explanations as to the space star's absence except for the cryptic allusion in one of the interviews to his need for privacy. Hmmm. Perhaps Mr. Armstrong realizes that the best way to play George Washington is to never appear on stage. Mr. #2, Buzz Aldrin, only expands the void. Ironically the apex of his appearance he is talking about #1 - no not Mr. Armstong - the OTHER #1. After Armstrong descends the ladder and delivers the "small step" line Buzz decides to desecrate the holy scene. Buzz gleefully explains that his long pause on the ladder prior to becoming Mr. Penultimate: "I was urinating - no disputing that was a first". There are apocryphal stories about Buzz photographing Armstrong ONLY while Buzz himself gleamed in Armstrong's visor. After viewing this film they are completely believable. In fact one wonders if Mr. Aldrin was the inspiration for the saying: "if they can send one man to the moon... why can't they send them all?" The ole space wizzer's creepiness manages to seep through all the filmmaker's best gloss. Aldrin describes the difficulty in actually landing the Eagle and can't help mentioning how "those guys at MIT didn't listen to me" - something about the computer. No doubt the boys from Boston were not alone in receiving advice from the space sage. He also manages to drop in the fact that he gave up pipe smoking and alcohol very soon before the launch. One can only imagine how his fellow travelers endured the extra spice that nicotine and booze withdrawal gave to the Buzz-less Buzz. Mr. Armstrong isn't talking and Collins isn't dishing any dirt. Collins somehow managed to escape the NASA slick filter. Here is a guy who would have happily fit in with Chuck and co. in the test pilot hanger. Collins is Frank Purdue flying a spaceship. The filmmakers rely on him to deliver the goods. He is affable and self-deprecating; in stark contrast to the undisputed first lunar jackass. There is an interesting segment in the film where they show Nixon reading a speech that was prepared in case the eagle couldn't leave the nest. Apparently there was great fear that Neil and Buzz might end up being the first 'lunar human sacrifice' due to questions about blasting off from the surface. If that had happened one can imagine Buzz immediately re-enacting the scene from the first fraternal feud. In this case Cain would be screaming; "How come they didn't pick me to go first!!!!!!!!!"

It is interesting to note that the crew of the first Apollo mission to orbit the moon chose to read aloud from Genesis on their first lunar orbit in view of the earth. The test pilots would have cracked open the beer they'd sneaked on board. There is a surprising open-minded religiosity one would not expect from the paradigms of 1950s white apple-pie male America. One of the scripture reader's talked about a lawsuit complaining about their literally "universal" global incantation. He said he had nothing against atheists and maybe it was inappropriate but that it really was meant in the spirit of universality. Another man spoke in almost Buddhist terms about the singularity and oneness of the world - something "beyond religion". There was a traditional "born again" who talked about finding his faith. Interestingly this occurred AFTER his space career and one wonders if his faith is rooted in a search for the ultimate "mission control".

At the heart of this films lies the question of what really makes an explorer. If the definition of coolness is "grace under pressure" you'd have to award all these men top honors. Sometimes their derring-do bordered on the pathologically frigid. The anecdote about a fellow-astronaut dropping in on Neil Armstrong. The visitor casually discovers that the future first moon-man had bailed out of an exploding aircraft a few hours before their encounter. Neil didn't think it worth mentioning and deadpanly answered "yeah" that did happen that morning and went on to shuffle papers on his desk. This certainly beggs questions about the borders between coolness and insanity. There was another astronaut who's heart rate remained at 70 beats a second DURING LIFTOFF. Hmmm - it would be interesting to know what makes him break a sweat - or maybe not. The more the film progressed the Neil's non-appearance becomes self-explanatory. It's really best to savor those heroes in those scratchy, faded newsreels. They were the men of that time who most effectively speak to us IN THAT TIME. They are all heroes - even #2. Buzz reflected on the responsibility of being a man who walked on the moon. He spoke about living up to expectations. It obviously weighs on all of them. Perhaps its would have been best if they'd all sat in a room and answered one question: Are you the only men ever in the history of time ever to experience another world? They could have dutifully stood at attention and answered "yes sir" or "yes ma'am". The test pilots might be heard cackling in the next room; Chuck could enter and moon the moon-men. Run credits: These are the only men.......

No comments: