Watching In the Shadow of the Moon, a transporting documentary in which astronauts from all the Apollo missions recall what it was like to travel to the moon and back (the film features sublime, never-before-released footage of their doing so), I experienced a feeling that came as a shock: not just the usual admiration and ooh-and-ah wonder, but a bedrock nostalgia for an age when technology could seem innocent — when it was infused, on a mass scale, with mystical humanist longing. (Sorry if I don’t get that same feeling from YouTube.) I experienced a similar sensation watching Deep Water, a spooky, moving doc that chronicles the first solo attempt, also in the late 1960s, to circle the world by boat. It may have been technology that made these voyages possible, but it was something else — the ability to dream — that made them real.
It’s funny to think how much the ’60s, in hindsight, seem a relatively low-tech era: no cable, no Internet, no videogames, no iPod. The space program, more than anything, helped to lay the groundwork for the age we’re now in, and In the Shadow of the Moon doesn’t hide the apocalyptic botched test launches or the tragedies (a trio of astronauts perishing in a capsule fire) that set the stage for the lunar-landing program. The vulnerability that the astronauts felt is there in the homespun eloquence of their recollections: the intensity with which their bodies vibrated during liftoff, in a way the simulator never came close to preparing them for; the scary moment, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were about to touch down on the moon, when their module’s computer got overloaded; the way Earth looked from space (”The overriding sensation I got,” says Mike Collins, his eyes glowing like Yoda’s, ”was ‘My God, that little thing is so fragile!”’). We’ve all seen images of the astronauts roaming the lunar surface like schoolboy explorers, but the spookiest thing here is when the moon just appears, in the capsule window, looming up like a gorgeous slate-gray cosmic graveyard. In the Shadow of the Moon finds new resonance in the moment when America redefined progress — but also when it heeded the siren song of a world so desolate it reminded you what a paradise ours truly is.
Donald Crowhurst, the fascinating central figure of Deep Water, heard a siren song of his own. In 1968, he took part in the first race of yachtsmen to circumnavigate the globe — a contest inspired, in no small part, by the space program. A fusty British electronics-shop owner, Crowhurst had no business competing to be the Charles Lindbergh of the seas. When he set sail, he was wearing a sweater-vest and a tie, and he was soon bailing water by hand out of his rickety winged trimaran. He should have turned back, but he faced debts and disgrace, and so he did the opposite. He sailed on, vanishing into his mind to cling to the storybook journey he’d dreamed of. He left films, audiotapes, and a log, and Deep Water turns these haunting records into the tale of two adventures: the one Crowhurst took, and the one he conjured so the whole world could join it. In the Shadow of the Moon: A; Deep Water: A-