Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Wonder of it All

Yesterday my family and I had the thrill of attending the Regional Premiere of The Wonder of it All. This was conducted by Conglomeration's annual WorldFest where they spend a week and a half debuting independent films at the AMC 30 theater. The blurb on the WorldFest website described it this way:

"The Wonder of It All - Focusing on the rarely told human side of the men behind the Apollo missions expressed through thoughtful and candid accounts from seven of the surviving 12 Moonwalkers. Some of the Astronauts will attend the Premiere. - CALIFORNIA"

No astronauts actually showed up that I recognized, but the Director, Jeffrey Roth, was there. The theater was less than half full -- I'm not sure if that was because there were 2 other WorldFest films (Greyfriars Bobby about the famous dog and Saigon Eclipse, a Vietnamese story) playing at the same time or just because people weren't interested. You'd think that, being this close to Mission Control, they would be.

But the movie was marvelous. They interviewed all the moonwalkers still alive (3 have died) with the exception of Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott. Being an icon of world history who's been in constant demand since 1969, it's understandable that Armstrong might opt out. But it's really a pity Dave Scott couldn't be interviewed since, with his companion James Irwin dead, there was no one "representing" Apollo 15.

The film had the feel of an oral history, a kind of last bequest by men who did something truly historic and know they don't have a lot of time left to tell people what it was like. There have been some other well done movies on the Apollo moon missions over the years. But the astronauts were almost always "playing the role" of steely-eyed test pilots. They would talk about the equipment and the procedures and, in an abstract way, the risks.

This time they talked about what was going on inside them, what they felt, what they were thinking, and how going to the moon changed them -- or not.

I had no idea for instance that Buzz Aldrin's mother committed suicide a year before his moon mission, and particularly that he believed she did it because she couldn't stand the stress of her son's fame. Can you imagine having that in the back of your mind while you became the second human on the moon? He also talked about how he celebrated Holy Communion on the Moon. This film was full of little insights and tidbits like that that I found fascinating.

Incidentally, I came away liking Buzz a lot more after this movie. I don't know why exactly but he impressed me as more "human" than he has in the past.

My all-time favorite astronaut since I was a kid, John Young, was interviewed at Mission Control. He said he didn't feel he was doing something particularly heroic by commanding Apollo 16 because he figured once we were there we'd just keep going -- set up a moon base, dig for minerals and such. He saw himself as just a part of that onward and upward movement. And yet, as he said, here we are in the 21st century starting again from scratch.

The last 2 segments especially made an impact on me: "Spirituality" and "Reflections. " Gene Cernan, last man on the moon, described how once he finally stood there in the lunar dust, the science he depended on his whole life "just didn't explain what I was seeing anymore."

Charlie Duke had an out-and-out conversion experience, as did James Irwin (though he isn't here to describe his any longer). Edgar Mitchell was drawn to mystical experience -- the Noetic Sciences. But as Al Bean summed it up so well (as he seemed to do throughout the movie), everybody that walked on the moon had their pre-existing beliefs accentuated. "Those that were religious became more religious... those that were atheists became more atheistic."

The Wonder of it All doesn't actually open till June. This is the first film premiere I've ever gone to; I just wish more people had been there. I hope Mr. Roth doesn't feel discouraged at the turnout here because it is a fantastic film. For all I know this may be the way it usually goes for low budget independent films. I mean, after all it is almost completely made up of the proverbial "talking heads" that we're supposed to find so boring. But what these talk about -- that makes it spellbinding.

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