David Sington's sincere and elegiac chronology of the Apollo moon missions of 1968 through 1972 is very cool, very white, and very conservative. The film embodies Norman Mailer's description of the NASA space program in his book Of a Fire on the Moon: "The astronauts were the core of some magnetic human force called Americanism, Protestantism, or WASPitude... They were the knights of the Silent Majority, the WASP emerging from human history in order to take us to the stars."
Sington employs previously unseen footage of the Apollo missions (re-mastered from archival 16mm footage and turbo-charged with a surround sound mix), along with television clips from the era and head shot interviews with 10 surviving Apollo astronauts, all larded over with Philip Sheppard's intrusive Copland-inspired score, giving the film the sheen of a very well made industrial flick exhibited at a Republican rotary club event.
But then there are the interviews with surviving astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Mike Collins, Charlie Duke, Jim Lovell, Edgar Mitchell, Harrison Schmitt, Dave Scott, and John Young. On the one hand, solely centering the film upon the reflections of the astronauts severely limits its scope. There are no discussions about the reason for or the ultimate meaning of the space program, except for explanations that are riddled in clichés. And, although there is cursory mention of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the political assassinations of 1968, the film stays well inside the astronauts' heads -- its political stand being one of flowery sentiment and American national pride (a patriotic fervor that has never been reclaimed since Apollo 11).
On the other hand, this is what gives the film its strength. For the astronauts, the "right stuff" is the stuff of test pilots and competitiveness, reflected in Alan Bean's recollection of seeing Alan Shepard's sudden celebrity as America's first man in space, saying, "How do I get that job!" It is also the mundane and the minutia of a space voyage -- from Aldrin's description of peeing in a urine bag before hopping onto the lunar surface to detailed descriptions of taking off from Cape Kennedy or the dangers of leaving the lunar surface. The film is 100 minutes of shoptalk on a bare bones level, as if the 10 astronauts were talking to you over beers at a rundown Cape Canaveral bar.
Sington also glides over the bumps in the Apollo mission story in the juggernaut to get to the Apollo 11 mission. The tragedy of the death of the first Apollo 1 astronauts -- Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee -- is quickly mentioned and the near tragedy of Apollo 13 is skirted over (since Ron Howard financed In the Shadow of the Moon, perhaps he figured viewers should consult his Apollo 13 for further information).
The film might also be called In the Shadow of Neil Armstrong because the absence of his towering presence in the film is a big, gaping hole in the narrative. Armstrong is like Godot, everyone talks about him but he never arrives.
Sington's hermetically sealed glory romp is effective for what it is but one can't help recall the bleat of the tramp in A Clockwork Orange right before he gets pummeled by Alex and his droogs: "It's a stinking world. Men on the moon, and men spinning around the earth, and there's no attention paid to earthly law and order no more."