Fifty years ago, people leaned toward their TVs, mesmerized by black-and-white footage of the first moon landing, something that had seemed almost impossible a decade before.
A new documentary will draw you toward your television, too — and the undertaking depicted in “Chasing the Moon,” a new six-hour PBS documentary that airs July 8-10, seems no less improbable 50 years later.
Directed by Robert Stone, the three-part American Experience film has no narration and no explanation, just footage from the actual events surrounding the historic Apollo 11 mission and interviews with key players.
That seemingly simple scaffold contains a complex story. The decade-long quest to beat the Soviet Union to the moon had enormous financial, political, scientific and personal stakes.
Though the space program was ultimately celebrated, it was not universally supported, and NASA’s attempts to get a person on the moon before the Soviet Union took place against a backdrop of social and political turmoil. Stone covers a mind-boggling number of those challenges without losing sight of the mission itself. An interactive website delves even further into the subject matter.
You’ll see familiar footage in the film — ticker-tape parades, the moon landing films taken by the astronauts themselves — but plenty that feels fresh even among 2019’s seemingly endless celebration of the Apollo 11 mission.
There’s plenty of struggle to match the mission’s triumph. Despite being feted as American heroes, NASA astronauts, their families and the team devoted to keeping them safe faced enormous pressure. They endured grueling training and the very real possibility the mission might end in death and national shame.
“Chasing the Moon” paints the space race as a tense tussle over the meaning of democracy and nation. It includes voices you may never have heard before: people of color, women, journalists and politicians who were as much a part of the story as the astronauts themselves.
That narrative shift makes the tale of Apollo 11 seem richer and more relevant than ever — and the familiar black-and-white footage of men on the moon as astonishing as it was back then.