There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Using official NASA footage of the Earth, moon, and the ships that traveled between them, this FX-free documentary is a feast for outer-space buffs. What’s surprising is that the film also holds considerable interest for viewers who don’t thrill to rockets, adventure, and giant leaps for mankind. Director David Sington conducted extensive interviews with 10 of the surviving Apollo program astronauts—Neil Armstrong was the sole holdout—and most of them turn out to be funny and, well, grounded. After decades of celebration of the intrepid, tight-lipped “right stuff,” who would have guessed that the Apollo guys have a sense of humor? The opening montage has an inevitable sense of grandeur, but Sington quickly undercuts it with the Byrds’ giddy “Mr. Spaceman.” Much of the movie is a chronological account of the United States’ space program, beginning with the shock of the Soviet Union’s successes and peaking with the first moon landing in 1969. There are sobering moments along the way, including the Apollo 1 explosion that killed three astronauts and the near-loss of Apollo 13, whose rescue is deemed “NASA’s finest moment.” (Also featured is a lesser-known downer, the elegy prepared for then President Richard M. Nixon to read on TV should the Apollo 11 crew not return.) Reflecting on the experience of unearthliness, some of the rocket jockeys turn cosmic, and one proclaims that he found Jesus out there. More characteristic, however, is Alan Bean, who recalls being one of only two people on the moon simply as “a weird feeling.” The most entertaining of the Apollo veterans is self-deprecating Mike Collins, who went almost all the way (he orbited the moon on the Apollo 11 mission) but never got to kick up some lunar dust. Reflecting on the sense that all humanity had triumphed when two Americans walked on the moon, he says “that was a wonderful thing. Ephemeral but wonderful.” The movie ends with a vigorous and witty rebuttal of conspiracy buffs who believe the six moon landings were staged. It’s an apt reminder that these men, apart from being heroes and such, are first and foremost scientists.