Just got back from a special screening of In the Shadow of the Moon - the new documentary that tells the story of the US moon missions by combining narratives from the astronauts who flew those missions with archival footage of the missions themselves. It's a nice enough film, though mostly because the subject matter is so inherently fascinating. It doesn't matter that the soundtrack is annoying, or that the film is about fifteen minutes too long (the last quarter of an hour being spent with the astronauts pontificating about God), or that there's a fair deal of American Jingo-ism involved, just watching the footage from the moon landings, the slow motion shots of the rockets blasting off from earth, the scenes from inside the NASA control center as the Eagle hovers above the lunar surface looking for a landing spot, all the thrilling detail of those flights combined with the sheer breathtaking awe of space travel is enough to make this film a marvelous watch.
But the person who really makes the film work, for me, is Michael Collins. We tend not to remember Collins much - he's the guy who stayed on the main space craft while Armstrong and Aldrin went down to the moon; a role he's splendidly philosophical about - but he effortlessly steals the show here. He's warm and thoughtful and funny and charming and you get the feeling, listening to him speak, that he's giving you the honest, sincere lowdown on how it really was. Oh, the other astronauts are nice enough - a great bunch of guys overall - but Collins is so real, such a delight to watch, that you can't help feeling, as Anthony Lane puts it in his review of the film, that he's "the ideal human to send into the unknown".
"Ephemeral but wonderful" is how Collins describes the goodwill that followed the first moon landing - and that's exactly how the film feels as well. By the time you get back home you've started to think about how chauvinistically male-centric the astronaut world is, how the whole thing, ultimately, was just a ridiculous PR exercise - you find yourself reaching for your Gil Scott-Heron CD to play Whitey on the Moon. But for the hour and a half you're sitting in that theater, all you're thinking about is the wonder of that furthest of all human voyages, and the incredible heroism of the men who made them.
UPDATE: Thinking about it, it occurs to me that Armstrong got it exactly wrong. This whole moon flight thing wasn't a giant leap for mankind - it was a very minor step that went nowhere. It may have provided us with a certain schoolboy thrill, but it didn't, as far as I can see, help make the world we live in any safer or happier. But for the people who actually flew the mission (as well as for the engineers on the ground who made it possible) it was, in fact, a giant leap, an incredible adventure requiring every ounce of courage and ingenuity that they possessed.