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The NASA space missions remain man's proudest example of technology applied to peaceful purposes. We've all seen exciting images of rocket launches and moon landings, in everything from The Right Stuff to MTV logos. One of the least shown space documentaries is probably the best, Al Reinert's For All Mankind (1989). This unusual look at the Apollo moon missions benefits from access to hundreds of thousands of feet of prime NASA film footage. Criterion has remastered the 1989 film on DVD and the HD Blu-ray format.
For All Mankind does not explain spaceflight or document a particular mission. It instead concentrates on the astronauts' personal reactions, letting them convey what it is like to be in an Apollo capsule, thousands of miles away from earth in the vacuum of space. The film is all images and personal reflections. Director Reinert does not use talking head interviews, informational narration, maps or a host to tell his story. We're given few statistics or dates.
The show consists of first-generation original NASA footage, often in long unbroken takes. Rather than follow a linear, mission-by-mission approach, Reinert assembles a dozen different missions from 1968 through 1973 into a single composite moon flight. Free to use the best material, director Reinert assembles the most stirring launch sequence ever. Observed from multiple angles, the Saturn V rocket lurches skyward from its pad, shedding huge chunks of ice. Aerial views emphasize the enormous flames exploding from the rocket motors, almost twice as large as the rocket itself. Familiar shots of stage separation are longer and clearer than we've seen them before: Reinert was given access to NASA's repository of "engineering film" taken to study component design performance.
The astronauts are heard but not seen describing their work, the wonders of zero gravity and their impressions of the lunar surface. In place of dry facts, they share their thoughts about being chosen to become members of an elite corps of moon voyagers. These men are highly trained test pilots and ex- military volunteers, yet each is compelled to find words to describe his experience. Most of what they say doesn't come off as particularly poetic: "It's out of this world!", etc. But we can tell that they're moved by the privilege to be the first explorers in a new frontier.
The astronauts were given 16mm cameras to record whatever pleased their fancy. We see the expected scenes of exercise workouts and zero gravity horseplay on the three-day flight to the moon. For All Mankind favors material that expresses the utter isolation of the blackness of space -- like views of the earth and the moon as seen from Apollo's view ports. We hear prayers, Christmas greetings and country music mini-concerts. Reinert includes the moment that almost spelled disaster for Apollo 13. As liquid spews from the command module we hear the concerned but controlled voice of Jim Lovell reading the bad news from his instruments: "We have a serious problem here."
The moon landing seems more intense than in other, standard documentaries. We can see the shadow of the LEM on the moon's surface during descent, which gives an indication of the scale of the landing zone. Neil Armstrong's famous words can be clearly heard. Unfortunately, much of the surface exploration footage is familiar low-quality video, the colorless TV signal that smears on fast motion. The spacemen hot-rod their moon buggy and experiment with running and hopping in the moon's low gravity. As one of the astronaut-narrators mentions the possibility of puncturing a life-sustaining space suit, we see a montage of scary-looking falls and stumbles.
The astronauts are fascinated by the dead lunar surface and intensely aware of the need to remember every detail of their experience. More than one remarks about the view of the earth from the moon, giving the impression that they frequently looked over their shoulders to make sure it was still there. Alone and vulnerable in the depths of space, the beautiful green and blue earth is like a fragile island in a sea of nothingness. To the moon voyagers it's home with a capital H.
Adding immeasurably to the film's impact is Brian Eno's individualistic music score, which encourages a calm appreciation of the wonders of space flight. Impressive sound effects back the launch and other major events, but Eno's themes for space and the moon's surface impart a reflective sensibility that owes nothing to space movie conventions.
Free from lectures, science lessons and political messages, For All Mankind is a superb piece of technological poetry. The film's most magical image is the sight of the Lunar Lander approaching the command module for docking. At first we just see an enormous moonscape moving in the background. Then a tiny dot grows to become the Lunar Lander, zooming up for docking. We notice for the first time that we can see its pilot in a port window, guiding his ship into position. The first men on the moon are coming back!
Criterion's Blu-ray of For All Mankind is a fine HD rendering of an impressive film experience. The higher resolution of 1080 scan lines brings out every detail in the 16mm original footage, which was filmed with such high-quality lenses that it often looks like 35mm.
Director Al Reinert later became a co-writer on Ron Howard's acclaimed Apollo 13 and also wrote episodes of the 1998 TV miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. He contributes a commentary track with astronaut Eugene Cernan, and is one of several interview subjects on An Accidental Gift, a thorough making-of docu that goes into the history of the NASA film archive. We're given a tour of the vault where the film is stored and meet the archivists charged with its care.
On Camera is an excellent compendium of film clips of astronauts answering questions on panels and in separate interviews. The range of reactions begins with mission humor ("I did all the work!") and ends with the testimony of astronauts who discovered that space flight raised their spiritual consciousness.
Other extras include a selection of astronaut Alan Bean's artwork, galleries of lift-off footage and classic audio bites: "Tranquility base here." An optional subtitle track identifies astronauts and NASA control room personnel. The insert booklet contains an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty and another from director Reinert.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
For All Mankind Blu-ray rates:
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