This week four men in their seventies will gather at the American Museum of Natural History in the glitzy Upper West Side of Manhattan. Each looks fit though otherwise unexceptional. The men share only one key feature, albeit a remarkable one: they all travelled to the moon more than 30 years ago.
On Wednesday, the four former lunar astronauts will be guest stars at a gala premiere for a remarkable cinematic celebration of their achievement, In the Shadow of the Moon, by British director David Sington. The film has generated rave reviews in the United States and has triggered widespread national interest. Many observers believe that in coming weeks it may trigger a badly needed bout of American national pride.
In the US, the documentary strikes a chord because it harks back to an age when the country’s success and technological expertise were acclaimed by the world. Today the US is obsessed with terrorism, the war in Iraq and international threats to its citizens’ safety.
The film’s laid-back style contrasts with the plethora of big-budget war movies scheduled for release in the near future, including Tom Cruise’s Lions for Lambs, set in Afghanistan, and several films dealing with the Iraq quagmire. These include Paul Haggis’s Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron; Grace Is Gone, in which John Cusack has to tell his two daughters their mother has been killed in action in Iraq; Rendition, starring Reese Witherspoon as an American whose Egyptian-born husband is suspected of international terrorism; and Brian de Palma’s Redacted, about an army squad that torments an Iraqi family.
By contrast, In the Shadow of the Moon harks back to a very different era. In the Sixties and Seventies, the world watched with open admiration as American heroes flew across 400 000km of space to plant the Stars and Stripes on the moon’s surface.
Most people have forgotten quite what those heady days meant. Hence the patriotic nostalgia that is enveloping the film. ”There is a harking back to ‘golden age’ moments,” said Professor Robert Thompson, a popular-culture expert at the University of Syracuse, in upstate New York. ”The moon landings were the greatest of American adventures and of all human achievements.”
This point has not been lost on the promoters of In the Shadow of the Moon. Over the past week they have been pouring cash into newspaper and TV adverts for the film. ”Remember when we used to look up,” says the film’s tag line, a reference not just to the days when the world gazed at the moon but when it also looked up to the US.
The film has won the backing of the Hollywood director Ron Howard, who directed Apollo 13. Although not involved with the movie’s making, Howard liked it so much that he agreed to promote the film ahead of its release. In the Shadow of the Moon also won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival as well as the Grand Prize of the Boulder Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Florida Film Festival.
The director, Sington, in an interview with the Observer, said he had not set out to exploit American nostalgia. ”I just thought it was a wonderful story. Nevertheless, I have had so many people come up to me at screenings and say, ‘Thank you for making me feel proud to be an American again.”’
Sington added that at one screening the astronaut Ed Mitchell, who flew on the Apollo 14 mission, arrived with his son Adam. ”After the film, Adam — now an adult — was in tears. He told his father, ‘I knew what you did, but I never understood what it meant until now.”’
The Apollo programme was a remarkable technological achievement. It absorbed 5% of the US federal budget at the time and involved nine flights to the moon, of which six landed on its surface. A total of 24 astronauts took part in the missions, with three — Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan and John Young — flying twice. Twelve men (of whom nine are still alive) landed on the moon and the remainder flew over its surface.
The first men on the moon, Apollo 11‘s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, landed on July 20 1969. Aldrin will attend this week’s gala premiere, along with fellow lunar astronauts Mike Collins, Alan Bean and Harrison Schmitt. Other Apollo crewmen may also join the line-up.
But one star will be missing: Armstrong, who is a recluse. ”I tried to interest Neil Armstrong in appearing in the film but got nowhere,” said Sington. ”However, I did get one email. It was a real surprise to see his name appear on my computer screen. It was like getting a message from the Archangel Gabriel.”
The buzz surrounding the film is especially notable because In the Shadow is a documentary, a format not normally rated top box-office material. In addition, some of the film quality is poor and contains few people.
”Nasa completely failed to appreciate the PR significance of the moon flights,” said Sington. ”Astronauts were told they had to take six photographs of each lunar rock they examined, but there were no instructions about taking pictures of humans. As a result, there are no pictures of Armstrong on the moon, just a reflected image of him in Aldrin’s helmet.”
Despite such drawbacks, the film is thoroughly absorbing, thanks to the footage of blast-offs, training and the on-screen interviews. ”These men have had time to reflect on what they have achieved,” said Sington. ”Their interviews were pretty bland 30 years ago, but now they are really intriguing.”
A typical example is provided by Apollo 16‘s Charlie Duke in answer to bizarre claims that the Apollo landings were fakes. ”Nine times. Nine times we went to the moon. Why would we do it nine times if we were just faking?”
In turning to a film like In the Shadow, the US seems to want to look back at past triumphs, rather than current military quagmires. ”The moon landings were a symbolic reclaiming of our masculinity as a culture,” said Thompson.
It also helps that many young Americans are only dimly aware of the true dramas of the moon landings, Thompson said. ”This achievement has been so underplayed in our cultural memory. I could go out and find hardly anyone who could tell you the names of all the men that walked on the surface of the moon. But they could tell you the names of the winners of reality shows like Survivor.”
Every year Thompson shows archive footage of the first manned moon landing to his students. Their reactions show the enduring appeal of the story, he said. ”They are always absolutely gripped. Even though they understood that people had been to the moon, it is always like they are seeing it for the first time.”
Space and the American dream
Apollo 17 took off from the lunar surface on December 14 1972. Its captain, Gene Cernan, was the last man to set foot on the moon. Several more Apollo missions had been planned but were cancelled as US public interest and support for the programme waned.
Only now, after a gap of more than 30 years, has the White House again talked seriously of returning.
In 2004, President George Bush pledged that the US would go back to the moon by 2020 to construct a lunar base that would act as a launching pad for missions to Mars. ”We need to prepare for new journeys to the worlds beyond our own,” he said. However, the president provided Nasa with only an extra $1-billion to design the new fleet of craft that would achieve this goal.
Test flights of these rockets are scheduled to begin in 2014, although their designs are still being finalised.
While Nasa is struggling to find proper funding for the new programme, it is also having to launch its ageing fleet of space shuttles, needed to ferry components to the manned space station being constructed to orbit the Earth. Most observers believe that Nasa will have difficulty completing this schedule.
In addition, without proper funding — at a level of many tens of billions of dollars — to build new moon rockets and hardware, there is little likelihood of the programme being realised, experts say. Only a major political commitment — equivalent to John F Kennedy’s 1962 pledge to take Americans to the moon by the end of that decade — will see another US flag being planted on the lunar surface. Such a commitment is unlikely. — Guardian Unlimited Ã‚