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For All Mankind
Directed by Al Reinert
For All Mankind

Criterion Collection: For All Mankind
National Aeronautics and Space Administration

A review by David Newbert

  "I had the only window at this point, and I looked out, and doggone if the moon wasn't visible in the daylight right straight out the top of the window. I know they're doing their job right because the moon's right straight ahead, and that's where we're pointed, and they're gonna launch us right straight to this thing."
—Ken Mattingly, astronaut, Apollo 16
  Al Reinert's For All Mankind is a visually impressive film, even if it isn't very informative. There are better documentaries about what led to the Apollo program, how the moon landings were accomplished, and so forth. Setting out an official history of NASA's accomplishments isn't Reinert's goal here. Instead, this is a film about what it felt like to ride rockets into space, journey to the moon, walk on the surface, and then return home. It's a film about the tremendous thrill of spaceflight itself. And from that limited perspective, it's about the best of its kind you're ever going to see.

Director Reinert and his editor Susan Korda culled their footage from NASA's archives, searching through over six million feet of film and eighty hours of astronaut interviews. Much of this footage had been stored immediately after being shot and developed, and at the time this film was first released (1989), much of it had never been seen by anyone in the public. After President Kennedy's famous address laying out America's determination to put a man on the moon, the film begins by watching Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins suiting up for the launch of Apollo 11, then quickly turns into a collage of sorts, intermixing footage from several space missions to create a kind of monomyth of American space exploration. We see the rockets lifting off, astronauts goofing around in zero gravity, close ups of the lunar surface as the orbiter passes by, shots of the LEM landing struts as they impact the ground, the rover trundling over the moon's landscape, etc. It's a process that attempts to compress time and space into a single, binding narrative. No one mission is differentiated from another, no astronaut is identified by name on screen. There's no background here, and no context -- except for the deep, inky blackness of space. Reinert has used this narrative compression to make it all seem timeless and apolitical.

Criterion first released this film on DVD in 2000, and they have now re-released it on both DVD and BluRay. The colors have been brightened a bit, and as you would expect, the high resolution transfer looks terrific. But much of this footage was shot using 16mm cameras, then blown-up by Reinert to 35mm. Have no doubt that the images look great, but there's only so much that can be accomplished with the source material. It's backed by Brain Eno's haunting electronic score, a combination that can be emotionally overwhelming.

Several of the original extras are kept on this disc, along with a new 30-minute documentary on the making of the film, and some interviews with the original astronauts. With these and the upgrade in image quality, it's worth the double-dip.

In one of the film's voiceovers, an astronaut gives an account of a dream he had of arriving on the moon and finding doubles of himself and a colleague in identical space suits. They had been waiting there for a thousand years or more. It's an eerie, human moment that reminds one of how momentous the achievement was, and of how it was all turning from history into myth even as the astronauts were doing it.

Copyright © 2009 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years while studying film and literature, then joined the college book trade. He grew up on the East Coast, though he currently lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.

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