As a bold meditation on discovery, courage and perseverance, Al Reinert's For All Mankind (1989) truly stands in a class by itself. This Oscar-nominated documentary chronicles the Apollo space missions of the 1960s and 1970s from a decidedly different perspective: the human one. Replayed reels of grainy stock footage have trained us to assume that the historic 1969 moon landing was distant, desolate and almost difficult to believe---but within this warm atmosphere, it feels as perfectly natural as a home movie. Though relatively short at only 80 minutes, For All Mankind was assembled from an enormous surplus of 8mm and 16mm footage held in NASA's archives for nearly two decades. This footage was routinely recorded for posterity, yet the majority of it had yet to be seen by the general public.
For All Mankind's subtle flow tricks us into thinking we're only watching one mission, but its deception shows us the big picture instead: this odyssey was about more than one moment, one journey or one crew; it was about the dedication of all involved, not to mention the overwhelming scope of the space program in general. Such a "discovery", for lack of a better term, helped to define an entire generation---and like it or not, the accomplishment has yet to be equaled, let alone bettered. In more ways than one, this broad assortment of material (carefully pieced together by Reinert, with the help of NASA film editors Don Pickard and Chuck Welch) is presented in its most affecting and appropriate form: as a loose but focused narrative, with an abstract beginning and end. Many smaller beginnings and endings were undoubtedly left on the cutting room floor, but it's all for the best; For All Mankind wouldn't be half as effective if it were approached in a less artistic manner.
Told in the words of several Apollo astronauts (including James Lovell, Jack Swigert, Ken Mattingly, Michael Collins and others), For All Mankind relies on monologue almost as much as visuals. Much of the audio we hear was recorded right on location---and while it's potent enough in its own right, the retrospective comments are even more effective. These astronauts' enthusiasm is only matched by their humility: they were certainly excited to be part of history, but their respect for the danger involved helped to keep them in check. We can't blame them, however, for skipping happily across the lunar surface or goofing off in zero gravity; after all, it's not like we wouldn't do the same thing. For All Mankind is a sincere and reverent experience, to be sure, but the film's infectious joy is one of its greatest strengths.
Brian Eno's score remains another highlight, whether it blends into the background or boldly steps forward. It's paired perfectly with the film's abstract flow and editing style, creating a natural but dreamlike atmosphere that works wonderfully. Still, the footage itself is the most effective element: the humbling nature of these visuals, especially with the realization that they're 100% genuine, really puts things in perspective. Modern documentaries like Planet Earth have given us a greater understanding of the world around us, but the striking simplicity of a desolate lunar landscape is something else entirely. For All Mankind may be light from a technical perspective, but that's not the film's intent: this is more of a spiritual experience than a science lesson. Those looking for a more detailed, analytical rundown of the Apollo missions have plenty of other options to choose from---but for everyone else, For All Mankind remains a definitive document of our first trip to the moon and back.
Originally presented on DVD by Criterion in 2000, For All Mankind wasn't the company's most practical release, especially taking its $40 price tag into account: not only were the film's grainy visuals a tough sell for videophiles, but the short running time and light amount of extras didn't help matters either. Nine years later, they've attempted to create a more attractive package. Boasting a newly-minted transfer, a pair of new featurettes and a lower price tag, this new reissue of For All Mankind is the clear winner from a new buyer's perspective...but is it good enough to buy again?
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and slightly picture-boxed*, For All Mankind isn't the most visually stunning title in Criterion's catalogue...but this is strictly due to the source material. The vintage clips and photos are peppered with various levels of grain, while some instances of dirt and debris can also be spotted along the way. In any case, this newly-minted transfer looks great, all things considered: colors seem accurate, black levels are generally solid and digital problems aren't an issue at all. The Blu-Ray release will obviously offer a more substantial upgrade in this department, but DVD fans shouldn't be disappointed in the least.
* - Picture-boxing creates a small black area around the image to compensate for overscan used by most standard-definition TVs. This prevents the loss of image on all four edges, but those with more modern setups will suffer a slight loss of resolution. Click here to view an uncropped screen capture from the DVD.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix is equally low-key, but it certainly gets the job done. Dialogue is anchored firmly in the center, while Brian Eno's affecting (and slightly "wider") score rarely fights for attention. As with the original DVD release, optional English subtitles are provided in two separate formats: one during the entire main feature, and another that also identifies those speaking onscreen. A word about these subtitles, though: whether it's due to the font used or the film's grainy visuals, they're often very difficult to read.
Two new featurettes are also included with this release. The main attraction is "An Accidental Gift: The Making of For All Mankind" (31:59, below left), a retrospective documentary that fans should certainly enjoy. Al Reinert is obviously the chief contributor, but we also hear from Alan Bean, NASA film editors Don Pickard and Chuck Welch, film vault curator Morris Williams and lead librarian Mike Gentry. Shot partially at the Johnson Space Center (where we're actually given a glimpse of the vault and archive materials), this collection of new interviews, vintage photos and clips is a great partner to the main feature...and it's something that Criterion's first DVD release was sorely lacking.
Our second new extra is "On Camera" (20:36), a collection of filmed interviews with fifteen Apollo astronauts including Charlie Duke (Apollo 16), Charles Conrad Jr. (Apollo 12), William Anders (Apollo 8), Edgar Mitchell (Apollo 14), Rusty Schweickart (Apollo 9) and more. It's also worth noting that these interviews were taken from previous films The Wonder of It All (dir. Roth, 2007), The Other Side of the Moon (Lemle, 1989) and Our Planet Earth (Lemle, 1990), as well as two filmed events celebrating the 40th anniversaries of Apollo 7 and 8.
All bonus features are presented in 1.33:1 and anamorphic widescreen format. The vintage material shows its age at times, but the newly-recorded interviews sparkle with clarity. Unlike the main feature, these extras do not include optional subtitles or Closed Captions---which is truly disappointing, especially for a 2009 reissue. In all other departments, however, Criterion has shown great attention to detail.
It certainly wasn't the most necessary reissue in Criterion's back catalogue, but For All Mankind is a worthy film that belongs in most any collection. Director Al Reinert's film has aged almost perfectly in the last 20 years, and the juxtaposition of photos, video and music remains as affecting as ever. It's a fantastic primer for those unfamiliar with space history, but die-hard moon buffs should enjoy this one as well. Criterion has matched or upgraded the original DVD in every department, from the newly-minted transfer to a pair of new bonus features (and a lower price tag!). A simultaneous Blu-Ray release will also be made available, but those limited to standard-definition should be happy with what's included here. This new reissue of For All Mankind comes mildly Recommended for owners of the previous release, but substantially more so for everyone else.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.