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Apollo astronauts propel documentary

David Sington's 'In the Shadow of the Moon' intersperses news and NASA footage with interviews with the men who went to the moon. David Sington's "In the Shadow of the Moon" intersperses news and NASA footage with interviews with the men who went to the moon. (nasa)

Why didn't someone think of this before? Talk to the Apollo astronauts about what it was like to go to the moon. Intersperse news and NASA footage of rocket launches, space flight, and such. That's what David Sington's documentary, "In the Shadow of the Moon," consists of. It's so simple, so obvious - and a revelation.

The astronauts themselves are the biggest revelation. Ten are interviewed. Shot in close-up, their seamed, trim faces resemble moonscapes - moonscapes with white hair. There can't be many instances where talking heads have been used to such expressive effect. Sington has an understated, unhurried style that lets the power of the close-ups sink in and the personalities of the individuals emerge.

Michael Collins may not have walked on the moon, but he's the star of the show, slyly intelligent and dryly witty, as well as the spitting image of Dwight Eisenhower. "I rather enjoyed it," he says of his time alone in the Apollo XI command module while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were on the moon.

Aldrin has a slightly mad glint to his eye and seems always about to break into a grin. The publicity-averse Armstrong isn't interviewed, although a good sense of him emerges from his comrades' admiring stories - he was the pilots' pilot, par excellence - and we do get to see a clip of his parents appearing on the TV game show "I've Got a Secret."

Alan Bean (who really does have a moon face) is a bit of comedian. Jim Lovell, who commanded the ill-fated Apollo XIII, has a charm and authority Tom Hanks might envy - Hanks played him in the 1995 movie about the mission. Edgar Mitchell seems at once haunted and exalted by his time in space. Eugene Cernan, who still looks as though he could jump into a fighter plane and bring down some MIGs, chokes up when he admits to feeling guilt at having been at Cape Canaveral rather than fighting in Vietnam.

"Vietnam" is a word much more commonly associated with the '60s now than "Apollo." So for anyone much under 50, "In the Shadow of the Moon" should be an education - not just for what it shows about space flight but social history. It's hard to exaggerate just how large the space program loomed during the '60s. For most Americans, sex and drugs and even rock 'n' roll were a sideshow to what seemed the decade's great story: the space race. The period footage vividly communicates the obsession (not too strong a word) surrounding NASA.

The crew-cut, can-do manner of the astronauts made them heroes at the time - and makes them seem like anachronisms now. Even then, that manner made them seem like ciphers. Of course, in a pre-celebrity era, that was not only accepted but preferred. Armstrong, with his surpassing reticence, is the most famous astronaut but also, in that respect, perhaps the most representative.

Norman Mailer, in "Of a Fire on the Moon," presented the Apollo astronauts as noble robots, valiant but hopelessly boring. In "The Right Stuff," Tom Wolfe portrayed their Mercury brethren as colorful fighter jocks. What Sington gives us is something far richer. These men are funny and articulate, wise and unpretentious. That unpretentiousness makes all the more moving the sense of wonder they convey as they describe their barely imaginable celestial and lunar experiences. This is the real right stuff.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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In the Shadow of the Moon

Directed by: David Sington

At: Harvard Square, Cambridge, and Coolidge Corner, Brookline

Running time: 100 min.

Rated: PG (mildly salty language, brief violent images)

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