First To The Moon


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

First To The Moon
"This is a film that will revive all your childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut."

Everybody is familiar with the words, "It's one small step for a man..." but, well, taking that step isn't so difficult once you're on the moon. Whilst it was the landing that stole the world's attention, successfully touching down a craft on the lunar surface was not, ultimately, the most difficult part of the affair - it paled into insignificance compared with the mammoth task of getting to the Moon in the first place. That moment of triumph belonged to another mission, Apollo 8, and this film tells their story.

By the time the Apollo 8 team came on the scene, many vessels had successfully entered Earth orbit (and many people had lost their lives in the unsuccessful ventures that paved the way there). To leave that cocoon of gravity and head out into space proper, however, was a very different thing. It required real courage both on the part of the astronauts themselves and on that of team behind them, who were required to make a massive effort to develop the necessary technology. Many a government would have hesitated to make the necessary investment, especially in light of the political risk if it should fail, but the Americans at that time felt compelled to take it on. They had to beat the Russians.

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Looking back on it all, says crew member Jim Lovell, the Cold War was quite silly - but then, so were a lot of the wars that had gone before it. Later he would meet Russian cosmonauts and discover that they had a great deal in common, having experienced the space race in similar ways. At the time, however, everything was different. The Russians had won the race to put a man in orbit. The Americans had to win the race to the moon. With so many people working on the project, neither he nor fellow crew members Frank Borman and Bill Anders expected to be the ones chosen. Once they were, their passion for the project became personal. They are now willing to say outright that, had they been ordered to turn back when their goal was close at hand, they would have pretended they had a communications failure.

All three astronauts contribute their stories to Paul J Hildebrandt's fascinating documentary, which uses archive footage and animated recreations based on their accounts to tell the story of their journey. For those of us born in the succeeding decades it's difficult to imagine a world in which nobody knew what the Moon looked like except through a telescope. NASA didn't seem to have given much thought to pictures; the men took charge of that themselves. It was almost accidental that they managed to capture as much as they did. Though we see some of their photographs here, it is only through their words and through Hildebrandt's skillful pacing that we are able to understand a little of what it meant to see such sights for the first time - or to see them in person.

This is a film that will revive all your childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut. Whilst we may think of those who landed on the Moon as the lucky ones, the Apollo 8 crew clearly feel blessed beyond anything they ever imagined. Their continuing excitement at their adventure, even when recounting it in sober terms, guarantees an engaging narrative, and Hildebrandt teases out a wealth of related anecdotes, packaging technical information around them so delicately that you might not notice you're being educated. There's no need to lay it on thick. You only need to look at the computers in mission control to realise that your phone is more powerful. In light of that, the scale of what was accomplished was staggering, and it's good to remind oneself of that. Apollo 8 was always intended as a gateway mission. Hildebrandt will make you believe that, even if it rushed into that mission for silly reasons, humanity can still have a future among the stars.

Reviewed on: 06 Jun 2019
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A documentary about the first three astronauts ever to set out from Earth towards the Moon.

Director: Paul J Hildebrandt

Starring: Bill Anders, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell

Year: 2018

Runtime: 121 minutes

Country: US


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