'In the Shadow of the Moon'

THEIR number is small and their status is elite: They are the only humans to have visited another world, to have actually walked on or been in close proximity to the moon. Their story, as captured in the riveting documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon," is an unexpected knockout.

Unexpected because after years of NASA publicity bombardment, most people no doubt figure they know as much as they want to about America's string of Apollo missions to space. I know I did. But this fresh and compelling film, made with intelligence and emotion by British director David Sington, proved me wrong. Even if you care so little about the moon that you wouldn't mind if it's made of green cheese, the romance of this endeavor will capture you entirely.

That's because "In the Shadow of the Moon" made the very shrewd decision to avoid narration and have the only voices come from archival footage and thoughtful and extensive interviews with 10 of the 15 surviving moon voyage astronauts.

Now mostly in their 70s, vigorous enough to be commanding presences yet old enough to be candid, these men, alternately wry, acerbic, perceptive and funny, form as remarkable a group of individuals as anyone is likely to meet. There is a great spirit to them, and to have each of them talk to us as they'd talk to old friends is a rare opportunity.

Also special is the space footage "Shadow of the Moon" has assembled, much of it never seen before and all of it remastered from original NASA footage. The almost abstract shots from robot cameras showing the crafts separating and docking in space are jaw-dropping. Images of the Earth, rising up over the horizon and then floating in the sky "like a jewel hung in the blackness," as one astronaut puts it, are also stunning.

The early astronauts, drafted into the space program in the 1960s when President Kennedy decided to race the Russians the 240,000 miles to the moon, were test pilots who thought sitting on top of an unreliable rocket was, in Jim Lovell's words, "a quick way to have a short career."

The space program did have some shocking moments (including the abortive Apollo 13 flight celebrated by Ron Howard's film) which director Sington does not shy away from. Most poignant is Gene Cernan's recollection of Gus Grissom saying, just days before he died in a fire on the launching pad, that he was afraid to complain about the conditions that killed him and two other astronauts because "they'll fire me."

Understandably, most of this film's attention is on the 1969 Apollo 11 flight which saw man's first steps on the moon. We meet the self-involved Buzz Aldrin, the superb raconteur Mike Collins, but not the increasingly reclusive Neil Armstrong, the man who took those initial steps.

Though Armstrong chose not to talk on camera, he is very much a presence in the film, both through archival footage and the recollections of other astronauts, all of whom are still in awe of his coolness under stress. Alan Bean remembers Armstrong coming within a second and a half of dying in a training exercise, only acknowledging it when asked with "Yeah."

Not only do the astronauts themselves display potent senses of humor, the film itself does as well. The Byrds' song "Mr. Spaceman" is on the soundtrack, and an amusing clip of Armstrong's parents on the game show "I've Got a Secret" gets a prominent place. Sington chooses to end things with the astronauts' deadpan responses to the conspiracy theory charges that the moon landings were all faked.

What is perhaps most unexpected about "In The Shadow of the Moon" is that its depiction of both an America and Americans we can believe in lifts the spirits in a way that has not been felt in years. "We did something the whole world appreciated, participated in," Collins remembers. "Everyone felt, 'We, the human race, did it.' "

It feels good to remember those days, even now. Especially now.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

MPAA rating: PG, for mild language, brief violent images, incidental smoking. Run time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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