Thursday, August 12, 2021

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 15

Even More Space Race Documentaries: 

In The Shadow Of The Moon (2007): Released theatrically in 2007, director David Sington’s documentary (produced by Ron Howard) presents the novel approach of having the lunar astronauts speak directly into the camera and tell us their story, with vintage film footage bringing their words to life. This turned out to be one of the best moon landing documentaries I’ve seen; it doesn’t have the visual sweep of Apollo 11, but it has the most heart of any of these documentaries, for it quickly becomes apparent that these astronauts were profoundly changed by their lunar experiences. As the onscreen legend tells us at the opening, the 27 Apollo astronauts who voyaged to the moon between 1968 and 1972 are the only human beings in history to have actually visited another planet. And it is very compelling to watch them, older now and with decades to reflect on their experiences, as they tell us of what they encountered and how it changed them. In this regard the film pairs perfectly with Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary For All Mankind; there the astronauts also told us their thoughts, but their voices were never credited, and everything seen was archival footage. Here we see them and hear them, and it makes for absorbing viewing. 

But this is not to detract from the film footage. Sure, it doesn’t have the epic visual majesty of Apollo 11, but there is a lot of great material here. And as with For All Mankind, Sington has assembled many of the Apollo astronauts. Neil Armstrong is again a no-show, but Buzz Aldrin’s here, as is Mike Collins. Charlie Duke and Gene Cernan are also present; these two are almost the opposites of Armstrong in that they seem very willing to participate in these documentaries. Another interesting presence here is Edgar Mitchell, who I believe was sort of ostracized from the NASA world after his ESP and UFO interests became well known. In fact the following year the Discovery Channel released When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions (review forthcoming), a joint Discovery Channel-NASA production, and Mitchell’s barely a footnote in it, relegated to half-second archival footage. I’m glad he’s here, as I found his comments fascinating throughout; Mitchell, who died in 2017, would’ve certainly understood that in earlier, more magic-inclined cultures, he and his fellow lunar journeyers would’ve been seen as mystics of the highest order, given that they’d literally walked on another world. 

One of the great things about In The Shadow Of The Moon is that it shows how each of these astronauts have their own personality: Alan Bean comes off like someone’s slightly loony grandpa, Gene Cernan makes every statement as if he expects someone to chisel it in stone, Mike Collins is like the best friend you never knew you were missing, and Charlie Duke just seems happy to be there. In the celebrity lookalike contest, Buzz Aldrin here looks so much like Kirk Douglas that at first I thought it was Kirk Douglas in some sort of weird metatextual thing, and Jim “Apollo 13” Lovell looks a helluva lot more like Kevin Nealon than he does Tom Hanks. What I mean to say is, all these guys come off as just regular dudes, even Mitchell, and the way they talk so forthrightly directly into the camera you could almost get the impression that they’ve come over to your house to tell you about their moon adventures over a beer or two. 

Sington basically just lets the astronauts tell their stories and pieces this together into a running monologue. In other words, he doesn’t do much to mess things up, but I did feel that some of the shots and angles in these interviews were a bit too “art for art’s sake.” Like super extreme closeups of Mike Collins’s eyes while he’s listening to a JFK speech, etc. Sington’s use of archival footage is better, though, visually complimenting the words of his subjects. This documentary also features footage I haven’t seen in any others; when Armstrong and Aldrin break off from Columbia in the lunar module, for example, Collins says to them over the commlink, “That’s a nice looking vehicle you have there, even if it’s upside down.” To which Armstrong responds, in a rare moment of levity, “Somebody’s upside down.” 

Speaking of Armstrong, another thing that becomes clear from In The Shadow Of The Moon is that all these astronauts hold him in high respect. They almost talk about Neil Armstrong the way regular people talk about astronauts. Alan Bean tells the story, told elsewhere (particularly in Chasing The Moon), of how Armstrong barely avoided death by ejecting out of a lunar module training vehicle while test flying it, as shown in vintage footage. Bean, who shared an office and secretary with Armstrong, relates how he heard about this happening later that day, and so he went into the office – immediately after ejecting Armstrong just went back to the office to get back to his paperwork! – and he asked Armstrong about it, and a blasé Armstrong just responded, “Yeah.” Bean gets a lot of amusement out of this, and also he’s the only subject here who discusses The Right Stuff (the original Wolfe book, too, not just the movie!). He also has a laugh out loud bit where he refers again to the book when talking about how Armstrong’s lunar landing could’ve been scrapped due to low fuel. A bit, by the way, that Charlie Duke completely rips off in When We Left Earth

But then the humor is more prevalent than you’d think in this documentary. Mike Collins in particular displays a wonderful sense of humor. Another bit that made me laugh out loud was his comment on President Kennedy’s challenge to the nation in 1961: “It was beautiful in its simplicity. Where? Moon. When? End of decade.” I also appreciated his comment on the success of Apollo 11, and how everything about the mission went perfectly: “No one messed up. Even I didn’t mess up!” Speaking of Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin doesn’t feauture as much as you’d think he would, and for the most part his most memorable comments are about how he must live up to his historical moment every day of his life, and also how he was sort of the butt of a joke among the other astronauts in that at the time he was so focused on the lunar “rendezvous” operation that he would rarely talk about anything else, so people would try to avoid him. Aldrin displays his own sense of humor, too; here is likely the only documentary in which the man himself will tell you that he took so long getting down the ladder of the lunar module to the moon’s surface for his first steps because…he chose that moment to, uh, fill up the urine collector inside his spacesuit. “Everyone has their own first,” Aldrin says. 

I’ve mentioned Gene Cernan in previous reviews, and again he’s a memorable presence, and one the director latched on to; indeed, the title of the documentary comes from Cernan’s monlogue about how the entire voyage of Apollo 17 (or maybe it was Apollo 10; he went to the moon twice) was in the light of the sun, until abruptly everything was dark: “We were in the shadow of the moon.” As ever he has a lot of compelling things to say. So too does Mitchell, who relates the feeling of oneness with the universe he experienced on the voyage home, a feeling that was clearly akin to the spiritual revalations experienced by ancient mystics. On the more religious side of the specturm, Charlie Duke reveals that shortly after his own trip he became a Christian. It is very interesting to watch these astronauts – trained scientists and, per Aldrin’s description in Chasing The Moon, “technical people” – talking so earnestly about their spiritual beliefs. Collins too says that his mission to the moon has made him approach life with “more equanimity,” and Bean’s comments are also memorable – he says that since his trip to the moon he’s never once complained about the weather, or about other people: “We are literally living in the Garden of Eden.” 

In fact the final half of In The Shadow Of The Moon is very emotional, a word I don’t often use here on the blog, given how its lost much meaning due to its overuse in our touchy-feely modern era. But man some of the words here are very moving, and you wonder how different the world woud be if men like this were put in positions of power. As Jim Lovell relates, these guys got so far from Earth that you could block out the entire planet with just your thumb; from that perspective, all the bullshit of Earth – the wars, politics, etc – seemed like absolutely nothing. It’s touches like this that elevate In The Shadow Of The Moon above most other documentaries, and I’m thankful of Sington for making this movie, particularly given that so many of the astronauts seen here have since passed on. 

Neil Armstrong’s presence would’ve made the documentary even better, but unfortunately he’s not here. However as things worked out, a year before he died Armstrong gave a rare interview…to an Australian accounting firm! This 2011 interview is now up on Youtube, and it’s highly recommended as it comes off like a postscript to In The Shadow Of The Moon. This 45-minute interview is more fascinating than I thought it would be; Armstrong talks about many of the same topics covered in Sington’s documentary, and we even get his side of the lunar rover training accident in which he ejected. There’s also a great part where Armstrong takes an audience through the actual landing on the moon. Fascinating stuff, and Armstrong is very relaxed and candid, and the reviewer is great as well: he’s very respectful, lets Armstrong speak, and even tries to get him to laugh a bit. He’s also damned determined to make Armstrong understand how important he is to so many people: “You’re a wonderful man,” he tells him at the end of the interview. You can tell Amrstrong really didn’t give many interviews, as most of what he says here is repeated verbatim in Armstrong

Armstrong (2019): But if that isn’t enough Neil Amrstrong for you, there’s also this 90-minute documentary directed by David Fairhead, produced with the assistance of Armstrong’s family, and featuring, uh, the voice of Harrison Ford reading material Armstrong wrote, ie “the voice of Neil Armstrong.” It’s cool Ford is here and all, but his gravelly voice sounds nothing like Armstrong’s. That being said, at least Ford’s voiceover isn’t delivered as half-assedly as it was on Blade Runner (though in Ford’s defense I read many years ago that he gave such a blasé voiceover performance in the hopes that director Ridley Scott wouldn’t use it, as he supposedly felt the film was better without a voiceover). But man, a lot of Ford’s voiceover is comprised verbatim of what Armstrong said in that 2011 interview, linked above. One wonders why they just didn’t dub Armstrong’s voice on here instead? Maybe it was a rights issue? 

Indeed, perhaps it was a rights issue, as Armstrong has the lowest production values of any of the space race documentaries I’ve reviewed here. The majority of the footage is unremastered public domain stuff, in particular sequences from Theo Kamecke’s Moonwalk One; even this is shown in the public domain 4:3 aspect ratio. We aren’t talking full remastered widescreen glory like in Apollo 11 or Chasing The Moon. One thing the documentary does have going for it is the participation of Armstrong’s family and friends, which means we get a lot of home movies and photos that you won’t see anywhere else. Otherwise the production sticks to promotional films or archival material that, as mentioned, hasn’t even been remastered. Other than that, we have talking heads who try to tell us their impressions of the man: Armstrong’s ex wife, his two sons, some friends he made later in life, and fellow astronauts Mike Collins, Frank Borman, Charlie Duke, and Dave Scott, along with NASA flight director Chris Kraft (who comes off as a particularly cantankerous 95 year-old!). 

I was gutted, as the British say, by the sequence about Armstrong’s daughter, who died at age two. Here we learn that the little girl, Armstrong’s second child, was immediately her father’s favorite, and that he would ignore anyone else when she was around. Amrstrong carried her early passing with him through the rest of his life but never spoke of it, save to close friends. It’s my understanding that the 2018 Armstrong biopic First Man reaps this for all its worth, even up to the point that the film’s big “emotional moment” is Amrstrong paying tribute to his deceased daughter on the moon…instead of planting the US flag, a moment which was infamously removed from the film. (Tellingly, only professional movie reviewers defended this – so far as audiences were concerned, though, the movie was a bomb.) So Hollywood has shown us something that 99.9% didn’t happen instead of something that 100% did. I’ve read that Armstrong’s wife complained that he didn’t take any mementos of his family along on the Apollo 11 flight, so there goes that particular Hollyood delusion…which, let’s face it, is a ripoff of the subplot in Gravity anyway. Here, though, the little girl’s presence has a real impact, brought to life by vintage photos and film, and is a million times more meaningful than anything some Hollywood hack could conjure up. 

Armstrong’s former wife Janet doesn’t come off as too bitter, but I guess there aren’t too many guys in the world who would be thrilled that their ex-wife showed up in a documentary about them. But it’s made very clear that Armstrong was hardly around and that his wife and family were low priority for him, particularly when compared to the space program. Frank Borman pretty much states the same thing about himself in his portions. But this makes it clear that Armstrong, despite being dedicated to the man at the expense of other NASA figures, doesn’t tell us much about Armstrong, because his family didn’t really ever see him. In fact it also becomes clear that Armstrong’s fellow astronauts knew him better, and even they didn’t know him that well, thus one actually learns more about him in the other docs I’ve reviewed. And for that matter, many of those astronauts had unfortunately passed away by the time Armstrong was produced; doubtless Alan Bean could’ve given us some fun material, given that he shared an office with Armstrong at NASA. 

One astronaut who is still living but doesn’t appear in Armstrong is Buzz Aldrin. But this documentary tries to imply there is a fifty-year rivalry between the two, over who toke those important first steps. Flight Director Chris Kraft happily boasts that he was the one who chose Armstrong to take the first steps on the moon: “I did it!” Kraft says that Deke Slayton pegged Buzz Aldrin for the honor, but Kraft felt that Aldrin wasn’t the right man for such a momentous occasion, and insisted the honor go to Armstrong. Kraft clarifies, “I didn’t dislike Aldrin…I didn’t like him, either.” Curiously, the same year Armstrong was released, Kraft gave an interview in which he discussed this decision further, but in the interview he states that he and Aldrin are still “good friends!” Even more curiously, this interview was published just a few days before Kraft died. Anyway, poor Buzz Aldrin doesn’t come off very well in Armstrong, which is a shame; “the voice of Neil Armstrong” (aka Harrison Ford) informs us that he personally liked Aldrin…but soon noticed some “eccentricities” about him. And yet Buzz Aldrin was just as responsible for Apollo’s success as Armstrong was, in his own way; without Aldrin’s expertise in scuba diving, NASA would’ve taken a long time to figure out how to do EVAs, aka spacewalks; per When We Left Earth (to be reviewed next time), Gene Cernan got his ass kicked while attempting an EVA, and it was up to Buzz to teach his fellow astronauts what to do on spacewalks. 

Armstrong’s post-moonwalk life is almost humorously rushed over. Granted, not many people will be going into Armstrong wanting to know about his spell as a college professor in the ‘70s, but still. It’s intimated that he became “reclusive” for a time, yet no one bothers to mention that Neil Armstrong hosted a weekly TV series in the early ‘90s: First Flights, which played on the A&E Network and featured Armstrong flying various planes. Again, Armstrong himself is a mystery; we learn his wife finally divorced him, fed up with his taciturn nature (“He had forty-eight years to change”), but Armstrong’s second wife doesn’t appear. And also the producers, perhaps chaffed that Aldrin didn’t appear, again try to stir the pot with a quick post-mission press interview in which a reporter asks the Apollo 11 crew how they’ll handle “the future” given their newfound fame. Aldrin gives a somewhat jokey response on wishing he could see the future to properly answer the question, and for no reason Armstrong razzes him: “I think it’s up to you.” Later we’re informed that Aldrin went through a few marriages, had a mental breakdown, and etc, the unstated implication that Kraft et al made the right choice. But honestly, Aldrin’s the only member of the Apollo 11 crew still living, and the dude looks fit enough to get on a flight to Mars tomorrow, so he must’ve done something right. 

Overall though, Armstrong isn’t nearly the spectacle of the other documentaries I’ve reviewed here. It’s a bit let down that a lot of it is a retread of what’s shown in the other docs, and also the footage isn’t nearly as spectacular. I did feel that the doc did a better job of focusing on Armstrong and Scott’s near-fatal Gemini mission than most other documentaries, particularly given that Scott himself is here to talk about it. Oh and Armstrong’s death isn’t even really elaborated on; basically it was completely avoidable. “Bypass surgery” is vaguely mentioned as a risky proposition for an 82 year-old man, but in reality it turns out that some sort of snafu caused Armstrong’s death. According to a news story that came out a few years after his 2012 death, the hospital gave the Armstrong family a $6 million settlement, as it turns out that the staples in Armstrong’s heart had been improperly removed after surgery, or something to that effect, and he bled to death internally. In other words, the man whose entire career had been built on careful attention to detail died due to someone else’s lack thereof. 

Still not enough Neil Armstrong for you? Then check out this clip from a 1983 Bob Hope TV special, shot for the 25th anniversary of NASA, some of which appears in the Armstrong documentary. Here you’ll see the first man on the moon in a comic dialog with Bob Hope! Armstrong’s a little stiff and awkward on stage, but his comedic timing is good…his “things that get off the ground” punchline made me laugh out loud. In the segment Bob Hope plays some clips of Armstrong’s appearance at various USO shows in Vietnam in ’69, and here Armstrong is much more comfortable, even making a risque joke for a couple blondes in the audience. (Though of course Hope – then in his late 60s – has even better ones for the two blondes.) And is it just me, or does Armstrong in the 1983 stage material give off some Dick “Bewitched” York vibes? Same mannerisms, posture, pitch of voice, etc. Yeah, it’s probably just me. 

Bonus Record Review Section: 

Michael Drew and John Petrone – The Flight Of Apollo Eleven (Jamestune Records, 1979): This obscure LP, released on a vanity label, is along the same lines as the earlier Journey To The Moon, telling the titular flight of Apollo 11 in a narrative of audio footage and original music. But there are a few differences: One, there’s no narrator here, and the story of the flight is relegated to a single side, with Side 2 being unedited versions of the songs on Side 1. The biggest difference however is the style of music – just as Journey To The Moon captured the vibe of its era with vaguely psychedelic easy listening tunes, so too does The Flight Of Apollo Eleven capture the vibe of its own era: That’s right, folks, disco! And disco of a decidedly jazz-funk vein. Everything is professionally produced and recorded, and the LP even comes in a very nice gatefold jacket that’s filled with pictures and a glossary of terms on the back, so it’s a mystery why this was released on an independent label. But I must admit that the music doesn’t capture me nearly as much as Journey To The Moon, and relegating the narrative to just one side robs the story of drama. Another difference is that there are vocals here; the last track, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” features a female singer. 

But as with that earlier LP, the actual NASA recordings are interspersed throughout, from the astronauts to Mission Control. We have some stuff here that wasn’t in Journey To The Moon, particularly a bit at the end where you can hear Nixon’s voice asking for the chaplain on the recovery ship to say a prayer. And also the LP opens with a long snippet of President Kennedy’s speech to Congress in 1961, similar to the opening track of Public Service Broadcasting’s 2015 LP The Race For Space. As mentioned Side 2 features most of the songs that were on Side 1, only in slightly different arrangements and lacking, for the most part, any of the NASA recordings. 

I’ve played the LP a few times and it still hasn’t clicked with me, as opposed to the immediate response I got from Journey To The Moon, which is still one of my all-time favorite albums. The Flight Of Apollo Eleven is so obscure I’ve not been able to find out anything about it, and there aren’t even any uploads on Youtube. However it does look like Michael Drew, crediting only himself, released the album under the title One Small Step as an “audio book,” and you can hear a few minutes excerpt on Amazon – heard in the clip is the end of track 1, all of track 2, and the beginning of track 3, all three from Side 1. No idea if this “audio book” features the entire LP, or just the Side 1 narrative. At any rate, I got my pristine copy of the LP for two dollars, so I can’t complain about the price!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Neil Gaiman tells of once being at a gala event full of people far more sophisticated and accomplished than himself. He was chatting with an elderly gentleman who waved his hand at the crowd and said "I look at all these people who have done extraordinary things and think, what am I doing here?"

"Well," said Gaiman, "You are Neil Armstrong."

"But I just went where they told me to!" he replied. Sure, going somewhere no one else had ever gone with piloting that no one else could have done. There's hope for all of us if Armstrong felt like an imposter!