There’s not really a great deal to say about this Film Four co-production from 2007, which tells the story of the mission to the moon in the 1960s. As a documentary it’s almost aggressively conventional in its presentation, using newly-shot studio interviews with ten of the surviving Apollo astronauts alongside often jaw-dropping archive footage from NASA (as well as from various earth-bound news sources.) Any gaps in the narrative are filled with static captions and the whole thing is set to a gentle orchestrated backing score of the most unobtrusive and unmemorable kind.
Film maker David Sington doesn’t take any risks with the way the piece is structured, either, sticking firmly to chronological order. There’s no hint of controversy or anything that might mess with the tale of real-life all-American heroes: the Soviet element to the space race is never mentioned; and while there’s an appropriate sober moment of reflection marking the tragedy of Apollo 1, the corresponding drama of Apollo 13 is dealt with very briskly and presented as pretty much NASA’s finest hour in overcoming insurmountable odds.
The well-polished anecdotes contain no surprises for anyone who has a decent working knowledge of the space programme – most people already know what Buzz Aldrin was doing while waiting on the gantry to take his step into history as the second man to walk on the Moon. Aldrin speaks very warmly and even admiringly of his colleague Neil Armstrong, who is the lone absentee from the line-up of interviewees having long since retired from public life after years in the global spotlight. In some ways it’s a good thing that he’s not present as it might have tipped the documentary too much into being one man’s story, whereas this way it comes across as far more of a team effort all round and allows some of the lesser-known astronauts to shine through instead. Without exception, they’re extraordinarily fine company.
While it doesn’t present itself as an overtly ambitious piece of filmmaking, the film’s plain and ultra-conventional style means that it’s left to the subject matter to dazzle and enthral in its stead. And it certainly does exactly that: hearing the ten astronauts speak of their experiences and achievements, and of their emotional responses to all that they went through, soon proves compelling, engrossing and deeply moving for anyone for whom the modern miracle of space travel even slightly touches their soul.
Ultimately it’s like being invited around to a intimate, friendly low-key gathering at which everyone shares their stories and their jokes, and gets out their scrapbooks and photos to share around at a relaxed and leisurely pace. As they talk to you directly from the screen, you can’t help but feel honoured to be included especially given the prestigious nature of company you’ve been invited to share and the momentous nature of the events they are talking about.
Given the inevitable march of time, and the fact that no one has been to the Moon now since 1972, this is an invaluable and irreplaceable record of times and places now long past and unrepeatable that changed our perception of what it means to be human – told by the men who did it.
Available on DVD and Blu-ray