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For All Mankind

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // July 14, 2009
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 6, 2009 | E-mail the Author
"That's one small step for [a] giant leap for mankind."

It was
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forty years ago this month that Neil Armstrong -- commander of the Apollo 11 mission -- spoke those words as he took his first historic steps on the moon. It's startling to believe that when John F. Kennedy declared to Congress in 1961 that the United States would commit itself to landing a man on the moon and safely returning him home, NASA had yet to even achieve orbital flight. This was an indescribably daunting task for a nascent space program, yet just over eight years later, one of mankind's greatest endeavors would be achieved.

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 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,
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contributing further to that sense of immersion. Though For All Mankind chooses not to introduce the individual astronauts or spell out their specific roles on each mission, it never loses sight of the human element either. The documentary takes care to showcase the candid, more playful moments: listening to reels of tape from musicians who recorded songs expressly for these journeys, smirkingly detailing the logistical headaches with going to the bathroom in outer space, making a sandwich in zero gravity, and dancing on the surface of the moon.

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",
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one of the featurettes on this Blu-ray disc, delves into the extraordinary lengths to which NASA goes to protect its film archives. The 16mm footage filmed throughout the Apollo program was processed in-house by NASA, printed once, and then archived in a climate-controlled vault. As endlessly as some of this material has been recycled in documentaries and news programs over the years, NASA was making copies of copies of copies: murky, battered prints many generations away from the original source. This, disappointingly, was typically the only exposure the world at large had to what the astronauts had captured. For All Mankind was produced by returning to the original material immaculately stored in NASA's archives, and the resulting 35mm interpositive would decades later be remastered by Criterion for this Blu-ray release. "An Accidental Gift" compares the remastered presentation of For All Mankind to the heavily worn clips we've all seen time and again, and the difference is startling.

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.

  • An Accidental Gift (32 min.; HD): Newly produced for Criterion's reissue, "An Accidental Gift" explores the history of NASA's film archives and what led to Al Reinert making the decision to compile this documentary. This featurette walks the halls of the Johnson Space Center in Houston just as Reinert did in his downtime as a journalist, sifting through the countless miles of film in NASA's archives, only the tiniest fraction of which had ever been seen by the world at large. The title of this featurette is owed to the fact that NASA didn't set out to capture such startlingly beautiful imagery on those merits alone, and "An Accidental Gift" touches on the gun-like cameras used by the astronauts, the heat-shielded film pods released during the launches, the development and climate-controlled storage of film that has never left the walls of the Johnson Space Center, and the process of molding this raw footage into what would become For All Mankind.

  • On Camera
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    (21 min.; minimally HD): This featurette compiles on-camera interviews with fifteen of the astronauts from the Apollo program, culled from a variety of panels, interviews, and documentaries. Among the topics of discussion are the enthralling first glimpse of an Earthrise, how startling it is to catch sight of the moon after nothing but vast expanses of black, an astronaut's mindset in the hours leading up to the launch, and looking at life after having stepped foot on the moon. Though this selection of interviews is encoded in 1080i, only a couple of them were captured natively in high definition.

  • Paintings from the Moon (46 min.; partially HD): Aside from being the fourth man to walk on the moon, Alan Bean also has the distinction as the first artist to have ever left the planet. In an eight minute introductory segment, Bean showcases how he creates his artwork, incorporating fragments of his space suit, moon dust, and heat shield into his paintings as well as giving it additional texture from tools he used on the moon. Following this are 38 minutes of Bean offering detailed commentary over his artwork.

  • NASA Audio Highlights (7 min.; HD): Twenty-one iconic sound bites spanning the first decade of the space program unspool over a high-res still of the moon.

  • 3, 2, 1...Blast Off! (3 min.): This three minute montage compiles together launches from each of NASA's five rocket boosters from the Gemini, Mercury, Apollo, and Skylab programs. Although this extra is encoded in HD, the footage itself has been upscaled.

  • Audio Commentary: Director Al Reinert is joined by astronaut Eugene Cernan -- who remains the last man to have stepped foot on the moon -- in an audio commentary that was originally recorded in 1999. It's a terrific track, although the featurette "An Accidental Gift" covers much of what Reinert has to say, often almost verbatim. Reinert touches on wanting to see the sprawling scope of such a journey splashed across a large theatrical screen, some of the adjustments made and even one brief moment that was faked during the assembly, bringing Brian Eno onboard to contribute an otherworldly electronic score, and how the astronauts were perhaps too conservative with 16mm stock on the surface of the moon. Among the highlights of Cernan's comments are delving into the spirituality of spaceflight, the minimal margin of error with the fuel in the lunar module and addressing the possibility of being trapped on the moon's surface, the inability of astronauts to address the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the trek to one another, and his ambition for the future of the space program.

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.

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