Film celebrates America's trip to the moon, a singular achievement
In these days of international turmoil it may be hard for older Americans to remember, and incomprehensible to younger ones, that there was a time not too long ago when the whole world celebrated a singular achievement by the United States.
On July 20, 1969 the United States landed a man on the moon. It was a moment watched and celebrated by millions of people around a globe -three brave men suspended in the inky darkness of space.
In 1961, after Sputnik, the stunning Russian achievement whose 50th anniversary is today, President John F. Kennedy announced his intention to land an American on the moon. Between 1968 and 1972, nine American spacecraft voyaged to the moon and 12 men walked on its surface.
Walter Cronkite, Joanna Simon, and Mike Wallace at Island screening of Shadow of the Moon.
Those men are an elite group. They are the only men to have voyaged from the earth to the moon and their story is no less remarkable with the passage of time.
It is told in dramatic and exciting fashion in a film released last month in New York and Los Angeles to much critical acclaim. "Ron Howard presents In the Shadow of the Moon," is a stirring documentary that combines archival film footage and recent interviews with surviving crew members from every single Apollo flight.
The thunderous roar of a Saturn rocket, the self-effacing humor of men who risked their lives sitting on it, and images of Americans filled with worry and pride are woven throughout the 95-minute film that was awarded documentary honors at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival (For more information go to www.intheshadowof the moon.com).
The film so impressed Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes fame and retired CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, both Vineyard seasonal residents, that the two icons of American journalism teamed up with Chappaquiddick resident and NBC executive Dick Ebersole to sponsor a private Vineyard screening.
On a summer Friday afternoon in August the trio and the film's director, Englishman David Sington, greeted invited guests in the lobby of the Edgartown Cinemas, which graciously agreed to show the film prior to a scheduled movie.
Mr. Wallace introduced the director with words of praise and told the audience in his signature voice, "You have not seen a film like this before in your life. It is a wonderful film. All of a sudden at one time America was doing all kinds of wonderful things and sometimes some of us become a bit disillusioned by what we see today in our country and the leadership of our country."
Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan salutes the stars and stripes on the Moon - December 1969. From David Sington's RON HOWARD PRESENTS IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON
In comments following the show, Mr. Ebersole, who saw the film for the first time, told The Times, "This is the first time that I saw it, and it blew me away. How often can you find anything purely American that makes you feel proud to be not only a citizen of the United States but a citizen of the world?"
Mr. Ebersole said the world had become a much more complicated and sad place in the 38 years since the events described took place. He said it was nice to be reminded of those accomplishments. Striking a partisan political tone, he said President George Bush and Vice President Dick Chaney should watch the film over and over to see what it was like "to have the rest of the world respect you for something positive."
In a follow-up to the film, The Times e-mailed Mr. Sington a series of questions. The questions and his responses follow:
Please tell me a little bit about yourself. What are some of the other films you have produced?
I started making films at University. I went to Cambridge, which has a strong tradition of theatre and film, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it offers no courses in theatre or film! After graduating I joined the BBC, which is a fairly conventional route for an aspiring filmmaker in Britain. I made films at the BBC for 12 years before starting my own company, which specializes in documentaries for television. We have made several films for PBS, including the NOVAs "Dimming the Sun" which won the Earthwatch 2007 award, and "The Ghost Particle" which in its UK incarnation ,"Project Poltergeist," won a Grierson Award (the premier UK documentary award). I think in total I have produced and/or directed around 40 films!
What inspired an Englishman to make a film about the Apollo missions?
My wife Pamela Neville-Sington is from Cleveland, Ohio, and so half my family and friends are American. I have made many films in America and for U.S. broadcasters, and so while I certainly am British I am also a semi-detached American, in some ways at least. The fact that we came to make this film is partly a matter of luck. The original impetus came from Dave Scott (Apollo 15) in 2004, and he was living in London at that time and got to know my colleagues Duncan Copp and Chris Riley. But I think that the moon landings, while an American achievement, were a world event. I certainly remember them vividly! The film is partly about recapturing that extraordinary moment of optimism and worldwide solidarity.
After speaking with the astronauts, how did your conversations reaffirm or change your views of the U.S. and Americans?
I think that for me the whole experience of making the film (and also of showing it to audiences all round America prior to its general release next month) has been a process of re-enchantment with the country. Some of the things that are distinctive about the U.S. are not very attractive, at least to me (portion sizes, celebrity culture, campus massacres, etc.), but making the film reminded me that there are many things about this nation which are wholly admirable, and that this remains a land of infinite, exciting possibilities - that what's noble about the U.S.A. easily outweighs what's tawdry (even if the media coverage is dominated by the tawdry!).
What most impressed you about the astronauts?
They are all very impressive men on many levels. I suppose the thing that I came to value most as a filmmaker was their eloquence and wit. That really makes the film!
Would you name several characteristics that all the astronauts share?
They are all very intelligent men; they are also men to whom the notions of duty and honor still mean something. They all also have nothing to prove, and this means that they are all refreshingly free of any pretension or false heroics. There's an urban myth that the men who went to the moon all went a bit mad. I think it would be hard to find ten saner people than the men in our film! I suppose in the end what they all have in common - and what makes them unique - is an unparalleled perspective on our world and our situation as human beings in the Universe. They alone of all of us have seen with their own eyes what the Earth truly is, and where we truly are. I think this visceral understanding of the reality of our situation here on Earth has affected all of them, although that perspective is expressed in different ways (spiritual, political, scientific, environmental). I think that is what makes what they have to say so important.
I was surprised to see that clip of President Richard Nixon reading a prepared statement consoling the nation that could be broadcast in the event that the men did not return. What did you learn in the course of making the film that surprised you?
That astronauts can be very funny! Also, that though they have some shared characteristics, they are also quite different people with quite distinctive personalities. I think that because we are used to seeing them in spacesuits all looking the same we tend to think they all are the same -and that's very far from the truth.
There was a detectable theme, both in the introductions and comments from those who attended, that the Apollo mission was an example of American goal-setting at its best, and that George Bush and the Iraq war stand in direct contrast to that. If you can put aside the politics, mistakes and ulterior motives, which also accompanied the moon missions, why is the stated goal of establishing democracy in the Middle East not as noble a goal as was landing a man on the moon?
This isn't a politically partisan film (and I'm not Michael Moore!). But there are parallels between the sixties and now, and particularly between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, and so I think it is inevitable that people watching the film are drawn to make comparisons. For my own part I think the contrast is not between goals, but between means. As Edgar Mitchell says of the Apollo program, "Politically it was about beating the Russians." Ultimately, the political goal of the Apollo program and the goal of America's intervention in Vietnam were the same - the containment and eventual defeat of communism. It's simply that Kennedy (and others at the time) realized there was more than one way to fight the Cold War. America could fight militarily, but it could also fight culturally - because in effect the conflict was about which system represented the future of society. The Apollo program was designed as a demonstration of the strength, creativity and determination that an open society like America could muster when stirred. I think that July 20th, 1969, was indeed a turning point in the Cold War, but it was also more than that. It was a moment when briefly, all of us on Earth felt our common humanity as we watched in awe two American astronauts on the surface of the Moon. And that was also a vindication of American values, because they are (or are meant to be!) universal human values. So for me one lesson one can draw from Apollo is that if we want people to embrace democracy, we have to show the world what democratic societies can achieve, we have to remind people that there's more to the American Way than Paris Hilton, the Hummer and Dunkin' Donuts! That's what Apollo did - and that's what perhaps the West is lacking right now.