Criterion // 1989 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 14th, 2009
"We chose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard." -- John F. Kennedy
Al Reinert's For All Mankind is a thrilling and unique cinematic experience. Yes, that is the best way to describe it, as a, "cinematic experience." It is not quite a documentary, not quite a fictional film, not quite like what most of what we are used to seeing on a movie screen. Reinert combines footage from the multiple Apollo missions to the moon that took place between 1969 and 1972, seamlessly blending the words and actions of various crews into a seamless and achingly poetic film. He takes bits and pieces from many different NASA sources but creates a tapestry that makes us feel as if we are watching a single mission. That is one of the gifts this film has to offer us, the ability to look beyond the ordinary facts and reality to find that epic, Herzogian "ecstatic truth" that transcends reality. The voices of over a dozen astronauts join forces to create a single coherent narrative; a tale of wonder and awe that draws us in and makes us feel as if we are part of this experience.
This is a film that makes my heart soar. I am in love with the manner in which it flows between simple, small-scale humanity and epic scope. In one moment, we see an astronaut with a walkman cheerfully listening to a Merle Haggard song specially recorded for his journey to outer space. In another moment, we see another astronaut staring in astonishment at sights that he had previously only seen as special effects in movies. "Just look at this," he marvels. "All of this 2001-looking stuff." He makes a request that mission control play a bit of Strauss. In the world of space travel, there are so many moments of technical details and laborious training occasionally punctuated by those oh-so-precious moments of joyous fascination. This is a film that dispenses with the former while artfully stringing together moment after moment of the latter.
There is rarely a moment that is not compelling on some level. I was struck by the scenes in the control room in particular. It is the same sort of mission control room that we have seen in so many thrillers, documentaries, dramas, and sci-fi films. It is filled with the same sorts of individuals that we are used to seeing in such control rooms: clean-cut men who seem to be all business most of the time. Ah, but here we see a side of them that is rarely ever shown. As striking images from space are beamed back to Earth for the very first time, we see a childlike joy enter the eyes of these individuals. This is what we have been working toward for such a long time. Here it is at long last, they seem to be thinking.
Reinert does not take the expected approach of focusing on specific individuals, telling their stories and giving them carefully-organized dramatic arcs. Names are almost never mentioned in the film, so it is often difficult to tell just who is speaking. That's the point, really. It doesn't matter. What Reinert wants us to witness is not the experience of particular men, but the experience of humanity as a whole. Here are human beings traveling to a new world for the very first time. This is what they feel. This is what they see. Though they have a great deal of special training and scientific knowledge, such things are more or less forgotten about when they first witness the majesty of space. They have the same reaction that most of us would have: "Wow." They worry about going to the bathroom in low gravity, they think about how cool the moon looks when given a backdrop of classical music, they marvel at the size of rocks in space, and they do all they can to freeze these precious moments in time in their minds. As one astronaut points out, they aren't just witnessing these things for themselves, but rather...well, for all mankind.
Thus far, Criterion has been somewhat selective about which new releases actually get hi-def companion releases, so I'm just a little puzzled by their decision to give For All Mankind a Blu-ray release. The film relies very heavily on grainy, beat-up stock footage, and I honestly doubt that most of this looks drastically better than it would on DVD. To be sure, there are a few shots of space that really benefit from being seen in hi-def, but it's an expectedly scattershot visual experience that is only as good as the historical footage available. Still, I suppose hi-def is the way to go if you have to pick one or the other. The 2.0 audio is also often subjective to the quality of the audio available. Lots of muffled dialogue, bleeps, and beeps are all over the place, though the ethereal bits of original score that appear here and there come through nice and clear. The narration is often accompanied by a bit of hiss, but it isn't too bad.
The supplements here are a mixture of older and newer materials. The audio commentary by Reinert and astronaut Eugene Cernen was included on a 1999 DVD release. Other older features include a subtitle track that identifies the astronauts as they are speaking in the film, a gallery of paintings by astronaut and artist Al Bean, launch footage from various Apollo flights, and audio clips from NASA history. However, there are also some new features. The best of these is a 32-minute making-of documentary featuring Reinert and other individuals involved in the making of the film. In addition to this, you get a 20-minute selection of interviews with various astronauts. Cool stuff, and well worth a look.
Whether you classify For All Mankind as a documentary, a work of fiction, or something else entirely, there is no denying that it is a truly great film. If you haven't seen this, you must. This disc is definitely worth an upgrade from previous DVD editions. Recommended without reservation.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Identification Track