Men in the Moon

Director David Sington refocuses our gaze on the Moon landings but this time the storytellers are the men who did it, writes Drew Turney

Is it possible for a cultural milestone like the NASA moon landings of the 1960s and 1970s to lose its power? Ask any nine-year-old and they’ll tell you what ‘one giant leap for mankind’ means. And we’ve all seen the fuzzy pictures of a half-earth swathed in cloud rising over the lunar surface.

But it’s when Jim Lovell talks about holding his thumb up against the sky and being able to hide the earth behind it that you get a slight shiver up your spine. "That’s how small we all are," Lovell says serenely in In the Shadow of the Moon, "you can hide the whole Earth and all its problems behind a single thumb."

Lovell, the famed captain of the failed Apollo 13 flight that was dramatised in director Ron Howard’s 1995 crowd pleaser Apollo 13, is just one of the original Apollo astronauts who make In The Shadow of the Moon so special.

The West started by asking director David Sington why he wanted to tell a story that had been told a million times. The way he describes it, there are actually a million ways to tell the story, and the only one we haven’t heard is the one by the guys who did it. Collected together by Sington, astronauts like Lovell, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, Dave Scott and more tell us the story of the moon landings in their own words, giving the familiar story a new emotional gravity.

In fact the film isn’t about the moon, rockets or the extraordinary amount of never-before-seen footage to the British documentary maker. "It’s really the story of these men," Sington explains during his recent Perth publicity tour, "Of course you tell the story because that’s the context, but it’s really about them and their reactions. Even though I’m quite interested in the story and the drama, I felt I’d never really got to know these guys as individuals."

Combining the candid views of the men who were there with a wealth of new video data from NASA itself, Sington knew he was onto something special. Producing a documentary several years ago for BBC, he was shown to a room at NASA full of Apollo film archives in cold storage that hadn’t even been viewed in decades. "We went into [the film] thinking ‘it’s not an unknown tale so we have to work hard to make it fresh’. With high definition video it became possible to get some of that footage to use in the film. So with new things to see and such personal stories which I don’t think have really been told, I think we achieved it."

Of course, you can’t talk about personal accounts of the moon landings without mentioning Neil Armstrong. Cultural wisdom claims he was so overwhelmed by the endless publicity and hero worship that followed the Apollo 11 mission he withdrew totally from the public eye, a Howard Hughes style recluse in a backwoods log cabin somewhere in the US.

Sington corresponded with Armstrong — more than countless journalists and filmmakers before him have achieved — but he defends the Eagle lander’s captain for his decision not to appear to the media any more. For one thing, Armstrong spent most of the post-1969 years as a college professor. "To paraphrase Neil, he’d say it’s not his achievement, its not ‘Neil Armstrong went to the moon’. It was really the achievement of NASA, the United States and human beings. He was the messenger, not the message.

"In archive footage in the film he talks about being privileged to represent the United States, saying ‘one small step for man, not one small step for me’. He told us that he was only on the surface of the moon for two hours and if we were genuinely interested in the experience, other guys had spent much longer. Because he’s such a strong presence in the film anyway I feel you don’t really miss him. Also, I like the way we don’t see Neil today but as he was, forever young, as it were. Would we really want to see Marilyn Monroe at 80?"

Sington’s credits include several documentaries, but nothing in the realm of fiction or drama. In The Shadow of the Moon makes you realise what little difference there actually is between feature and documentary, and it’s a skill the director hopes to draw on to make his mark in both fields.

"Fundamentally I think of myself as a storyteller and I’m always interested in the way film works," he says. "A documentary works the same way as drama and that goes back to the time of the ancient Greeks. Its about vicarious experience, its about getting the audience to identify with the characters on the stage or the screen. We watch a movie and as a filmmaker it’s my job to use the techniques of film to achieve that identification between characters and audience. That’s the same whether its documentary or drama."

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