Film Review: Lunar Tribute
On Friday 20 October 2017, I had the opportunity to visit New York for the premiere of the film Lunar Tribute by Robert Lewis, at the Margaret Mead Festival held in the Museum of Natural History. I had been told about the film by its star, Charlie Duke (Apollo 16 LMP) and his wife Dotty at the Spacefest 8 Banquet in June. I knew I must be there, because it includes the story of my favorite gesture by an astronaut: Duke leaving a photograph of his family on the Moon. What a demonstration of human devotion, of love. He wanted them to be right there with him. Millions of years from now, whether the photograph degrades or not, some part of Charlie, Dotty, and their kids Charles and Tom will forever be smiling together on the Descartes Highlands, looking up at Earth.
I met with my friends Susan and Irene, and walked down to the 77th Street entrance. The entry hall was abuzz with activity as people were finding the line for their film. Lunar Tribute was being shown in the largest theatre at the end of the tall, grand hallway. We made sure to be early to claim front row seats, since the film’s Facebook page estimated some 600 people had bought tickets. As we chatted amongst ourselves, the theatre behind us filled to the brim, and the star of the film, Charlie Duke, entered the theatre with his family a few minutes before 7:00pm. They all received a long, standing ovation, even without a spotlight. Sitting front and center, they were joined by the film’s director, Robert Lewis, and the percussionist, Jojo Mayer.
The first moment you see an astronaut in the room is always thrilling, especially if it’s one of the 24 guys who went to the Moon. It’s not like being starstruck, but more like an awesome, spellbinding realization: that man over there has been to another world. The lights dimmed and the film began.
Lunar Tribute is no run-of-the-mill Apollo film. Most documentaries have a broad scope, giving context for the space race, and then presenting an overview of the missions from multiple people who were involved. Right from the get go, this film had a different structure. It was going to approach the flight of an Apollo mission from the perspective of one man, let him tell the story through unrehearsed words, in his own environment, and interpret his story artistically. In this case, through the percussion-scape talents of Mayer.
Duke’s dialogue, the only voice in the film, makes one feel like an old friend from before Apollo 16, who decided to visit his house and catch up on this adventure he had. He answers common questions like the dreaded “What is it like to fly in space?” with vivid rhetoric and as much relatability as possible. After each major chapter in going to the Moon is told, Mayer then performs his artistic interpretation, in neo-noir style lighting with a stark lunar backdrop. His skill in creating mood in the audience’s mind helps fill the gaps that words and pictures can’t. Not to say there aren’t pictures, however. Many photos are presented in the film from around the time of Apollo 16; but curiously, no video footage from the Moon itself.
It’s easy to get frustrated when something new reproduces information you mostly already know, and seemingly-redundant questions are asked. Even as someone whose passion is spaceflight, I was not bothered by the fact that these basic questions were asked. This film doesn’t just press “play” on video footage from the Moon with a narrator telling the audience about various technicalities. Instead, the narrator is a talented artist, making us feel ourselves going to the Moon along with Duke. This is simply supplemented with pictures, just like how an author explains what a character looks like, but leaves certain details to the imagination. This is what people want to hear when they ask “What is it like to fly in space?”, not a dry readout of the mission timeline.
After the film came the panel discussion, featuring the one and only Neil de Grasse Tyson, Charlie Duke, writer/director/producer Robert Lewis, and percussionist Jojo Mayer. The discussion was thoughtful, gripping, and brought the house down with laughter, mostly thanks to Tyson’s positively sharp wit. The audience Q&A, invariably, was mostly directed towards Duke about his adventure to the Moon. For me, the best part was when a girl, no older than five, told the panel she wanted to be an astronaut. When asked where she wanted to go in space, she thought carefully and replied, “Mars.”
Cover image: Courtesy of NASA
Other images: Courtesy of the Author