My review of In the Shadow of the Moon, by Colin Burgess and Francis French ran today in PopMatters. It’s an excellent book, and I’m a sucker for the early space program. Most of the coverage I’ve seen has been focusing on the accompanying Ron Howard produced documentary, so hopefully I can help bring some attention to what is undoubtedly a more comprehensive encapsulation of the subject.
I haven’t seen the documentary yet, but the reviews I’ve read have felt a little tepid. PopMatters‘ Cynthia Fuchs was reverent in her review, but also felt that there were some unresolved issues and felt the need to wander a bit in search of them.
The Story at Hand
Personally, I didn’t really enjoy Cynthia’s review; I understand and sympathize with her desire for context, to set the space program against the backdrop of the 1960s with all it’s racial tension and political strife, but I think that would be an awkward and unhelpful weight on the story at hand. The goal of In the Shadow of the Moon isn’t to be the comprehensive top-down view of the space program in the 60s, it’s supposed to be a vehicle for those involved to relate their first-hand stories about what it was like to be an astronaut, to be an engineer, or mission control specialist working on these daring and dangerous missions. I think the slight acknowledgments of the social issues of the day that Cynthia highlights are the best you can expect; these men are engineers and pilots, not cultural critics. They have their own story to tell, and this is their chance to tell it.
I don’t doubt that the film lacks compared to the book. That’s usually how it works. Clearly you can tell a much more detailed, fuller story in a 450 page book than a 100 minute movie. French and Burgess spend a lot of time with the individuals they cover, you get their whole life stories, expertly woven into the book’s narrative. Both Cynthia and Anthony Lane in the New Yorker note the conspicuous absence of Neil Armstrong, saying that his silence seems to load the film with unanswered questions. There is no such gap in the book. In fact, the very final moments of In the Shadow of the Moon follow Armstrong on a post-Moon flight to the Soviet Union where he rendezvoused with his cosmonaut counterparts. This trip, and the simple yet touching tribute Armstrong leaves for the late Yuri Gagarin convey more about the man than a structured on-camera interview ever could.
Ultimately, I think the documentary would serve better as a supplement to the book than the main event it seems to have become. Unfortunately, the 100 minute documentary is an easier sell than the 450 page book. But if you’re seen the movie, and like Cynthia Fuchs and Anthony Lane feel as if there’s something missing, search out this book for the answers.
[tags]In the shadow of the moon, nasa, apollo, gemini, francis french, colin burgess, space exploration, PopMatters[/tags]