Until Al Reinert assembled For All Mankind, only the smallest fraction of the footage captured throughout the course of the Apollo program had ever been witnessed by the world at large, and then in weathered, endlessly recycled prints on the tiny televisions of the day. Reinert pored through some six thousand hours of 16mm footage, video, and kinescopes to shape this documentary, and despite the many years that have passed since, its stunning visuals remain thoroughly entrancing today.
For All Mankind discards the traditional documentary structure. It doesn't bother with a timeline of the Apollo program, there are no on-camera interviews or omniscient narration, and it doesn't even clearly identify the missions or the individual astronauts as they appear on the screen. Reinert is less interested in the story of the Apollo program than the journey. Though For All Mankind spans the history of American manned spaceflight from Gemini through Apollo 17, it treats Apollo as a single mission, following the trek from the ascent to the command module atop the colossal Saturn V rocket all the way to the return splashdown in the ocean. The visuals of this documentary are constructed entirely from the untold miles of film from NASA's archives, and because For All Mankind never cuts away from the journey to talking head interviews or computer-generated charts, Reinert allows viewers to escape into this adventure...to feel as if they're a part of it. There are retrospective comments from the astronauts that greatly complement this footage, and these blend in wonderfully with actual transmissions between Control and the astronauts,
The framework is sleek and uncluttered, and because For All Mankind never strays from the course of the mission, it's able to convey the scale and scope of such an epic journey in under 80 minutes. Even having spent so much of my life devouring sci-fi films and hardly being any stranger to special effects, there's no substitute for the real thing. The overwhelming power and fury of the Saturn V rocket is all the more dazzling in this slow motion launch, and the shots of the second stage of the Saturn V mission and glimpsing the first spacewalk are still incredible sights. Though For All Mankind does emphasize the awe and wonder of the journey, there is, briefly, some level of drama as well, with the troubles that threatened the Apollo 13 mission. The documentary features a remarkably wide assortment of footage on the moon itself, including Armstrong's first steps, the famous Apollo 15 feather-and-hammer drop, planting the stars and stripes, and a spin on a lunar rover.
For All Mankind is awe-inspiring, proof-positive that with enough talent and determination, even the most seemingly insurmountable task can be overcome. As many times as the Apollo program has been dissected and documented over the years, it's never been approached with the sort of dreamlike artistry showcased here. I've seen very few films -- documentaries or otherwise -- that approach the wide-eyed wonder and infectious passion that For All Mankind inspires. It's essential viewing for anyone with an interest in NASA and the Apollo program, of course, but I suspect even those whose familiarity with the concept of manned space travel is limited to the realm of science fiction might be startled to see how truly spectacular reality can be. Highly Recommended.
"An Accidental Gift",
I'll admit to being somewhat pessimistic at first about how much For All Mankind would stand to benefit from a high definition presentation. This is forty-year old 16mm footage, after all, triggered by automated processes and filmed by astronauts; it's not as if there's a lighting crew, bounce cards, and a seasoned DP at the helm. I expected to see some measure of improvement, but my kneejerk reaction was that there are hundreds of other films in Criterion's catalog that'd stand to benefit much more.
My cynicism evaporated almost immediately, and For All Mankind looks more beautiful in high definition than I ever would've expected. Admittedly, the quality can be uneven: this is a film that draws in part from kinescopes and relatively primitive video formats, the 16mm cameras didn't offer much in the way of flexibility, some stretches were shot as low as six frames per second to preserve stock, and as it spans several years and very different lighting conditions, the weight of the film grain can vary greatly throughout. This is, of course, unavoidable due to the way in which this material was originally captured. Still, I found myself frequently impressed by the boost in clarity and detail over what I'd expect from a DVD release. The texture of its film grain in particular looks terrific. Whatever level of noise reduction was applied is too modest to smear away any of the detail, and the photography is strikingly filmlike with the obvious exception of those rare stretches originally captured on video. Contrast is robust, the explosive launches and the oceans of the planet below are wonderfully saturated, and black levels are sufficiently deep and inky to render the void of outer space. As expected for a Criterion release, there are no missteps in the transfer or in the authoring of this disc.
For All Mankind is propelled by its visuals -- a document of a journey that precious few have had the opportunity to witness firsthand -- and the film makes that much more of an impact in high definition. The image is pillarboxed to preserve For All Mankind's original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and this Blu-ray presentation has been encoded with AVC.
For All Mankind boasts a remarkably spry 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Its sound effects are spread convincingly across all six channels: the booming rush of lights, background chatter in the control room, howling wind on the ascent to the Command Service Module, whirring helicopter blades, and the hum of the machinery blanketing seemingly every square inch of the module. Following one point in staging, the sound of the propulsion even pans smoothly from speaker to speaker. The lower frequencies generally have no need to be aggressive, but the unparalleled power of the Saturn V rocket in particular thunders from the subwoofer. The retrospective interviews with the astronauts are rendered clearly enough, and although the vintage recordings not surprisingly sound rather dated, there are no issues with intelligibility. For All Mankind's lossless audio is considerably more active and immersive than I would've expected, and this six-channel mix suits the material wonderfully.
As For All Mankind hinges on the journey rather than personalities or individual achievements, director Al Reinert has made a deliberate decision to avoid identifying the mission control specialists and the astronauts in the film itself. Criterion has assembled an optional subtitle stream for those curious about who happens to be on-screen, and a second stream combines this with captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.
For All Mankind is packaged in the style of transparent case that Criterion has been using for most of their recent releases. A lengthy and handsomely designed booklet offers an essay about the film by Terrence Rafferty as well as a brief retrospective by Al Reinert.
The Final Word
Reissued to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of one of mankind's most towering achievements, the startling visual impact of For All Mankind is only heightened with its release on Blu-ray. Aside from its impressive high definition remastering, this Blu-ray disc expands upon the earlier Criterion DVD release with a handful of new extras, several of which have been produced in HD. Entrancing and resoundingly powerful, For All Mankind is essential viewing for anyone with so much as a glimmer of an interest in the history of manned space travel. Highly Recommended.