Tuesday, September 18, 2007

There and back again

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.


Anonymous said...

And here I have been going around all morning telling people who care to listen that Buzz Aldrin was the first man to pee on the moon (well not on the moon directly, as we all know, though I idly wonder what would have happened if he had? Would we have a Sea of Urinity? Or would the whole thing have leaped upwards because of the lack of gravity (reader, pause! while I display utterly appalling scientific ignorance)). Needless to say, we spent a pleasant morning out here discussing astronauts' bodily functions and logistical difficulties thereof.


km said...

but it didn't, as far as I can see, help make the world we live in any safer or happier.

Oh, I can think of someone who's made our world both safer and happier: the TSA.

Anonymous said...

But really, the most fascinating thing for me was the absence of Neil Armstrong from the documentary. I wish they'd touched on some of that.


Falstaff said...

n!: Your poor department. did you use the "Eagle has landed" line on the poor sods yet?

They kind of did, didn't they - all that stuff about how Armstrong was a private person and how it was so hard dealing with celebrity afterward. The whole "I wouldn't want that job" bit. Though I can't help wondering if the man's generally reclusive or he just didn't want to be part of this project (which I could see why he would want to stay out of).

km: Ah, yes. One small pat on the back for Dubya, one giant strip search for Mankind.

Anonymous said...

Well, no, that phrase got supplanted by "I suppose you could say its a more general anisotropic nonparametric Spatial Dirichlet Process model".

Feel free to use it anytime. I think its wicked sexy. Almost as good as "Houston, we have a problem".