There's simply no question that For All Mankind--a documentary about the Apollo space program--is an extraordinary film. For starters, its wall-to-wall natural-historical footage emerged from a government vault; it's both breathtaking and priceless. Secondly, the film is a labor of love: it wouldn't exist if not for the tireless efforts of director Al Reinart, who gained extrardinary access to NASA and, instead of bogarting it, resolved to share what he saw with the world. Finally, For All Mankind is a work of poetic documentary. Countless books and films came before and since to document man's travels to the moon, but Reinart's take is a form of pure cinema, stripping away anything that might distract the viewer from immersion in the experience of the astronauts.
It's a tall order (238,857 miles to be exact) to bestow onto an earthbound viewer the near-unique experience shared among twenty-four lunar astronauts between 1968 and 1972. Reinart's approach is, in a way, the essence of simplicity. He begins by excerpting President John F. Kennedy's famous 1962 speech, at Rice University, about the space program ("We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard"). Those important words revisited, Reinert makes exclusive use of six million feet of NASA archival footage, whittled down to reconstruct a lunar mission from the walk to the rocket to splashdown on Earth, mission accomplished. Reinert overlays the footage with original mission audio and the later reminiscences of thirteen Apollo astronauts, who were personally interviewed by the director. The chronological approach neatly pairs experiential memories, put into words, with the almost dreamy imagery of unfathomable technology and previously unknown beauty. (Ably assisting in the task are editor Susan Korda and composer Brian Eno, with Daniel Lanois and others supplying evocative ambient complement to the otherworldly sights.)
David Sington's 2007 In the Shadow of the Moon takes a similar tack, but in more conventional talking-head form. For All Mankind and In the Shadow of the Moon would make an outstanding, perhaps mind-blowing double feature. Reinert chooses not to use titles to identify which mission we're seeing at any given moment, or whose voice we're hearing, and it's a valid choice: we have films like Sington's to delve into the individual personalities of the astronauts within a historical context. For All Mankind is about what makes these men all the same (the experience of launching from Earth, visiting the moon, and making it back to tell the tale) and, to some extent what makes us all the same: our infinitesimal smallness in the humbling vastness of the universe. It's about forgetting self and history and politics and daily trivialities, in favor of staring down the eternal and our collective unconscious.
Well, there are a few daily trivialities, spaceman style. The astronauts recall eating and sleeping (and dreaming) in outer space, as well as making waste--as cleanly as possible. We see and hear the men getting news updates (the Beatles' breakup) and sports scores and listening to music (from the 2001-associated "Also Sprach Zarathustra" to a special recording by Buck Owens of "Act Naturally," complete with the wise prediction that his audience will soon be movie stars). One brief sequence attempts to convey the pulse-quickening experience of troubleshooting technical breakdowns. Reinart would later expand on this idea in his screenplay (polished by William Broyles Jr.) for Ron Howard's Apollo 13. Reinart cheats just a bit to make the pieces conform for maximum effect: he incorporates a bit of Gemini footage, transposes one word in the Kennedy clip, and fakes a shot of the moon as seen from a command module, but in the big picture, these quibbles seem small.
The primary theme of the voice-overs is the surreal need for orientation, the relativity of space and time as experienced by an astronaut looking back on the shrinking planet that is his home, the attempt to keep a grasp on reality under unreal circumstances. We hear the plainspoken astronauts, in their element, say things like "Yahoo!", "Man!", "Bam!", "Yeow!", and "Well, I'll be doggoned," and it's entirely plausible that these express the experience better than anything else. But they also use varied metaphors (one describes the job as like being in a play; another describes the experience as like watching a play) or truth-telling wit (being in a launch "feels just like it sounds"). Perhaps the most indelible and honest human images in For All Mankind are those that show the grown men reduced (or enlarged?) to a premature second childishness, stumbling like toddlers on the lunar surface, mugging for the camera in zero-G play, and giggling giddily as they go about their work of collecting moon rocks.
For All Mankind looked terrific in its original Criterion issue on DVD (spine #54) and it looks even better in its hi-def Blu-ray upgrade. "Supervised and approved by producer-director Al Reinert," the transfer comes from a 35mm source, digitally cleaned to remove any dirt and dust. The film-like image accurately renders color and contrast, with all the detail the source provides. Of course, the source footage is variable and a small portion is particularly grainy, but most of the film is startling in its clarity and, as the making-of implies, this historical document is a "gift" to future generations. The lossless DTS-HD Master 5.1 mix featured on the Blu-ray likewise maximizes the source material, presenting the archival audio and Eno's music in an immersive form.
As usual, Criterion loads up its special edition with terrific bonus features, many of them new to this title. First up is a personable, screen specific commentary with filmmaker Al Reinert and astronaut Eugene Cernan sharing their thoughts about the film, its construction, its music, and so forth. But more than anything, the commentary amounts to another fascinating interview between Reinart and an Apollo astronaut.
The fascinating featurette "An Accidental Gift: The Making of For All Mankind" (32:00, HD) explores how Reinart gained access to NASA and made the film, in the process giving us a look at NASA's state, of-the-art in-house film-preservation department. Interviewees include Reinert, Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, NASA film editors Don Pickard and Chuck Welch, film vault curator Morris Williams, and lead librarian Mike Gentry.
In "On Camera" (20:35, HD) Reinert serves up a swell compliation of fave on-camera interviews with fifteen Apollo astronauts, culled from three other films (The Wonder of It All, The Other Side of the Moon and "Our Planet Earth") and two commemorative events. The astronauts included are Charlie Duke, Al Worden, Neil Armstrong, Charles "Pete" Conrad, Jr., William Anders, James Lovell, Michael Collins, Stuart Roosa, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Edgar Mitchell, Eugene Cernan, James Irwin, John Young, Frank Borman, and Rusty Schweickart.
"Paintings from the Moon" (37:53, HD) features Bean providing commentary on his art, preceded by an intro by Bean (7:33, HD). Bean's paintings constitute another intriguing attempt to convey the subjective experience of lunar exploration.
Twenty-one "NASA Audio Highlights" (6:45, HD) span from "Alan Shepard's historic first ride into space" to "Eugene Cernan's final words on the moon during Apollo 17."
Lastly, "3, 2, 1...Blast Off!" (2:35, HD) compiles launch footage "of each of NASA's five rocket boosters...which were the launch vehicles for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab missions."
Naturally, Criterion's packaging comes with a stellar 28-page booklet that includes credits, tech specs, and two essays, one by film critic Terrence Rafferty and one by Reinert.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer