Case Number 16801: Small Claims Court


Criterion // 1989 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // July 14th, 2009

The Charge

Darkness. A cloud drifts away, revealing a full moon shimmering in the night.

September 12, 1962. President Kennedy speaks at Rice University of the difficulty and challenge of going to the moon.

Darkness. Kennedy's speech continues as a voiceover. A searchlight fires up, then another, and another, and another, all reaching out to Pad 39B, transfixing a Saturn V so impossibly tall that it seems already reaching for the stars.

We are go for launch.

That, friends and neighbors, is how you grab someone's attention.

Criterion has re-released Al Reinert's Oscar-nominated 1989 documentary, For All Mankind. Let us give thanks.

The Case

In the mid-'80s, journalist Al Reinert (co-screenwriter for Apollo 13) discovered that close to six thousand hours of film shot during the Apollo missions had simply been placed in cold storage, never seen by the public. Reinert was granted access to the NASA archives, and he set about piecing together a documentary from what he termed "found footage."

As he reviewed the footage, Reinert realized that one flight had some really good liftoff footage, while another had some great stuff inside the capsule, while another...he finally decided to take the best from each flight and use it to represent a single flight. In addition, no one is identified on screen -- none of the flight controllers, none of the astronauts (though you can see some of the nametags), and none of the narrators (Note: A menu option provides onscreen IDs of everyone). The film doesn't focus on the nuts and bolts of space flight. Really, it doesn't have to; from the moment the Saturn V lifts off, the magnitude of the achievement is self-evident. The focus is more on the human experience, from the silly -- an astronaut doing zero-G somersaults inside an Apollo capsule -- to the sublime -- an astronaut explaining how the experience changed him. Instead of combining a narrator with a collection of talking heads, Reinert conducted interviews with thirteen Apollo astronauts, getting them to talk about their flights, and how they were changed by their experiences. He then matched audio snippets from the interviews to sections of the film, and their voiceover comments and observations are the film's only narration. The overall approach generates a surprisingly economical pace, with plenty of time available to show highlights from the moonwalks from all six lunar landings. The final result is almost impressionistic; the film universalizes the flight, not just in terms of the astronauts, but for the audience as well. Space exploration is mankind's endeavor, not NASA's.

The disc is technically amazing, and not all of that is Criterion's doing. NASA granted Reinert access to the original negatives, so the images started off clearer and more vibrant than anything we've ever seen. There's still a fair amount of grain, but it still doesn't diminish the way the colors pop off the screen. The 5.1 sound mix is a bit of a disappointment; it's good, but it doesn't reach out and grab you where you live, and if a Saturn V launch doesn't do that, something's wrong. The Blu-Ray release has a DTS-HD mix which will almost certainly do a better job hauling the mail.

The disc retains the commentary track from the 2000 release, featuring Reinert and Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan -- the last man to walk on the moon. It's informative and engaging -- Cernan remains incredibly passionate about space flight. The making-of featurette gives some good background; wait till you find out how NASA got the footage from the Saturn V's lower stages. There's also some archival audio clips, as well as some on-camera interviews of various astronauts. These were the same interviews from which the film's narration was taken; here you get the sections that weren't used.

New to this release is a piece featuring Alan Bean, who walked on the moon on Apollo 12. Bean had been an amateur painter for most of his career, and after his flying days were over, some friends of his said, "Al, stop screwing around with those still lifes. Everybody paints those. You are the only artist who has gone to the moon -- paint the moon!" Bean provides a narrated showing of his favorite pieces, and they are impressive. Perhaps my favorite is a matched set; a replication of the famous photo of Aldrin on the moon from Apollo 11, paired with a painting of Neil Armstrong taking the photo.

for all mankind criterion collection

You might notice the bootprints on the painting. Bean uses some of his old astronaut gear -- including a cast of his moon boots and his hammer -- to impart texture to the canvas before he starts painting. He also includes a little bit of moondust -- from some suit swatches -- in each painting.

The Verdict

I've watched a lot of space documentaries over the years. There are others out there that provide a more epic scope, or offer more technical details. None of them, though, humanize the exploration of space like For All Mankind. It is a soaring celebration of the Apollo program -- an ode to spaceflight, if you will.

Not guilty.

Review content copyright © 2009 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Judgment: 97

Perp Profile
Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic (Bonus Features)
* Full Frame (Feature)

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)

* English (SDH)

Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Commentary
* Featurettes
* Interviews
* Archival Footage

* IMDb

* Wikipedia: For All Mankind

* Alan Bean Gallery