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In the Shadow of the Moon; The Jane Austen Book Club 

click to enlarge Shooting the moon: An unidentified flying astronaut in a new space documentary - PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA/ THINK FILMS
  • Photo courtesy of NASA/ Think Films
  • Shooting the moon: An unidentified flying astronaut in a new space documentary

Before Stewart Brand started the Whole Earth Catalog, that omnium gatherum of countercultural brain food, in the late '60s, he mounted a campaign to force NASA to release photos it had of the earth taken from outer space.

He reasoned that these images, with their stunning proof of the planet's fragile unity, were revolutionary enough to stimulate a leap in humanity's consciousness, from narrow egotism to a collective realization of every individual's and people's connection to the biosphere.

Some of those photos eventually graced the Catalog's outsized covers, and their spirit infused Earth Day, the new study of ecology, the environmental movement and other idealistic enterprises down to the present. They appeared again, still gorgeously potent, in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Yet rather than heralding a new era of global communitarianism, they led into an era in which the forces of tribalism, war and ideological division reasserted themselves, and solipsistic fantasy replaced dreams of exploring the solar system and worlds beyond.

Such is the dismaying paradox that gives a surprising amount of emotional torque to the new documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. "Presented by" Ron Howard, David Sington's Sundance audience-award winner chronicles NASA's Apollo space program and its epochal conquest of the moon in the summer of 1969; it incorporates flavorful interviews with many of the program's astronauts (though not, alas, Neil Armstrong) and sizable amounts of fascinating footage not seen since it was shot.

In many ways, the film is the kind of straightforward TV science doc that its sponsorship by the Discovery Channel and England's Channel Four might suggest. The reason it has won festival prizes, made its way into theaters and evidently struck a chord with many moviegoers has little to do, I think, either with simple nostalgia or the gee-whiz quality of some of its images. Rather, it reflects an ongoing fascination with the largely forestalled promise of space exploration and the many questions left in its wake, such as: Was Stewart Brand's notion that an image could prompt a crucial change in human consciousness a mere '60s pipe dream, or an idea whose time has not yet come?

Though aware that the dramatic effort to reach the moon had its roots in some of the past century's most brutish conflicts and political regimes, the film, for whatever reasons, does not look back as far as the rocketry programs of World War II, including Nazi Germany's; Werner von Braun is not a character here. Instead, the story commences with Sputnik, America's shock at being beat into space, and John F. Kennedy's stirring challenge to the nation to reach the moon by the decade's end.

Given the enormous technological and human challenges it entailed, this goal seems almost crazy in retrospect. How could anyone have thought it was possible? At the time, no doubt, anything seemed possible; so America rolled up its sleeves, crew-cut scientists went to work with their slide rules, chiseled-jawed military pilots morphed into astronauts, and school kids across the country watched the early space launches in their classrooms and built model rocket ships at home.

Those latter endeavors were hardly without their importance, because, as In the Shadow of the Moon implies at every turn, the race to the moon was a feat not only of scientific expertise but of national will and imagination, one with which the entire world identified. Indeed, as miraculous as that first lunar landing can still seem, it was a miracle self-evidently accomplished by a whole planet looking upward, not just a few dozen tense scientists hunched over their monitors in Mission Control.

The film chronicles the Apollo program, early missteps and disasters included, partly through a set of interviews with astronauts including Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, Alan Bean, Edgar Mitchell, Gene Cernan and Charlie Duke. The filmmakers have made the point that, as these men are now mostly in their 70s, this may be their last major gathering for a document recalling their finest hour.

Filmed in extreme close-up, they are a vivid and gruffly eloquent lot, a reminder of a time when a bunch of suburban military pros could be sent on an adventure as fabulous as that of Jason and the Argonauts. The snide putdowns of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff hardly suit their levelheaded thoughtfulness and quiet pride in their work; they were not cowboys on missiles but heroes of the modern, buttoned-down sort.

As the Apollo story unfolds, Sington and his team deploy their other great asset: footage of the space missions that includes not just the well-known images but sometimes-spectacular sequences that were recently recovered after being left unseen in NASA vaults for decades. Among the most memorable of these are gritty views of the anxious exchanges in Mission Control as the first moon landing approached, scenes that came from old silent 16mm footage being painstakingly synced with radio recordings.

As you might expect, that first moon landing provides the movie's dramatic apex, which also entails the one aspect of the film that I found somewhat dubious: Images and stories from the missions that followed Apollo 11 are interlarded with its story, rather than being dealt with afterward. This understandable if rather awkward narrative ploy doesn't, however, diminish the suspense and awe of those hours and minutes that lead up to Armstrong and Aldrin stepping from the Eagle landing module onto the lunar surface.

For years Armstrong has declined to be interviewed about that event. Reportedly, his colleagues made various attempts to persuade him to reverse that policy for this film, but to no avail. In a way, that's a shame: It would be nice to have his recollections. Yet the film reminds us that Armstrong—like so much else about Apollo 11—was almost eerily perfect for the role he had to play on that historic day, and his Garbo-like silence since then only increases the event's numinous spell.

The other astronauts, in any case, are plenty articulate in that regard. All seem to have been changed by taking part in humanity's first (and so far, only) venture to another world. From finding Jesus to embracing New Age spirituality or environmental activism, their reactions all reflect the awe over earth's beauty, fragility and uniqueness that their view from space gave them. "We live in the Garden of Eden," one astronaut avers, and in the force of his words combined with this film's powerful images, you inevitably see what he means. It's a point that adds both poignancy and urgency to the question of whether such realizations—and humanity's dream of exploring the cosmos—will ever again catalyze our sense of global possibilities and priorities.

In the Shadow of the Moon opens Friday in select theaters.

click to enlarge The reader wears jammies: Emily Blunt and Marc Blucas in The Jane Austen Book Club - PHOTO BY RALPH NELSON/ SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

On the face of it, potential audiences for Robin Swicord's The Jane Austen Book Club would seem to fall into three groups: fans of the 2004 bestselling source novel by Karen Joy Fowler; the fervent cult known as Janeites, for whom all the novels of Ms. Austen are sacred texts; and avid consumers of the movie genre all too dismissively known as "chick flicks."

Well, I fall into none of those categories myself, yet I was quickly won over and thoroughly entertained by TJABC. The tale's conceit is that four romantically challenged or disenchanted women and one man—all residents of present-day Starbucks America—form a club to read and discuss Austen's novels one by one. As they do, their discussions are paralleled by the complications of their own romantic lives and hopes, on which their evolving friendships and literary analyses offer a kind of commentary.

It sounds like a tricky premise to convert from the page to the screen, and that's partly why Swicord's movie ends up being so impressive. It's a feat of fluid storytelling that interweaves comedy, romantic seriousness and smart observations about various contemporary foibles with the clever digressions into Jane discussion that does, in fact, cover all six novels. Swicord also deserves credit for her deft handling of a fine cast that includes Maria Bello, Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Jimmy Smits and Hugh Dancy.

My one complaint is that, typically for the genre, the female perspective renders the male characters more two-dimensional than necessary or credible. They tend to be either cute, oddly soft romantic prospects or swinish dullards. The real male world is a lot more complex, even, sometimes, in Jane Austen.

The Jane Austen Book Club opens Friday throughout the Triangle.

  • A space documentary celebrates a time of human possibility; plus the new Jane Austen film is better than it looks


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