The Criterion Collection presents
For All Mankind (1989)
"We came in peace for all mankind."- Neil Armstrong
Stars: Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Michael Collins
Other Stars: NASA Mission Control
Director: Al Reinert
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 01h:19m:55s
Release Date: 2000-02-15
DVD ReviewThere are few things that elicit more wide-eyed wonder and open-mouthed incomprehension than outer space. No matter how many take-offs, lunar landings, fiery re-entries, or even fatal tragedies we may have experienced via the television or through recent Hollywood re-tellings like Apollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon, the galaxies still contain huge gaping holes of the unknown that can only be filled in by our imagination. Indeed, rather than satisfying our imagination, Hollywood has simply stoked it to even loftier realms. In exchange, audiences have been quite content to hitch themselves onto a Hollywood-ized narrative bandwagon, whose amped-up heroic dramatizations leave precious little room for subtle mystery and ambiguity.
Print journalist Al Reinert spent several years painstakingly duplicating and assembling over 6000 hours of original NASA footage, some of it familiar but most of it never publicly shown before, fashioning one-of-a-kind material (shot "on the biggest location in cinema history," says Reinert) into a 79 minute documentary about the United States' obsessive quest to fulfill John F. Kennedy's prophecy and land a human being on the moon before the end of the Sixties. For All Mankind, released theatrically in 1989, has now been restored and committed to DVD by Criterion, complete with a new 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix and a nice suite of informative and complementary supplemental material, in another one of the studio's lovingly put together Special Editions.
What is perhaps most impressive about the massive and laborious editing effort that went into making For All Mankind is how producer-director Reinert has been able to take footage encompassing over 10-plus years of Apollo Missions and shape it into a singular mission to the moon. Risking the potential ire of some very big astronaut egos (a not insignificant risk, as Reinert speaks to in the commentary), Reinert took the rather daring step of assembling—or rather, collapsing—his film into one "representative" mission from lift-off to lunar landing to splashdown. It's quite an achievement, and one seemingly in keeping with the heroic narrative trajectory of the 24 men who made the trip of a lifetime.
Through 16mm color footage, as well as less spectacular-looking but no less amazing black and white video imagery, we follow in rough chronological fashion the "story" of a lunar mission, beginning with the tedious and tense moments preparing to launch, proceeding onto the explosive blast-off and thrust into orbit, and climaxing with Neil Armstrong's immortal first step on the moon. Reinert deftly turns up the tension by intercutting his space flight narrative with shots of mission control back on the ground in Houston, and all those unsung men in crew cut haircuts and chain-smoking haze that will be familiar to anyone who's seen Apollo 13. (The mission control footage will be so familiar in fact that you'll swear you're watching screen tests for the Ron Howard blockbuster.) Fusing several of the later Apollo missions together, Reinert uses primitive video footage of several expeditions on the moon's surface to wind down his story.
As impressive an editing job as he has put together, Reinert's narrative intentions are also what troubled me most about For All Mankind, and what left an unsatisfied taste in my mouth despite being amazed, excited, and moved by what I saw. Presented with some of the most breathtaking, inspiring, and quite literally out of this world footage ever shot, Reinert didn't have enough trust in the material to let it speak for itself. Oh sure, there are plenty of words from the astronauts themselves—Reinert accumulated over 80 hours of taped interviews with many of the Apollo astronauts, and it is these voices along with Brian Eno's evocative score that makes up most of the soundtrack of the film. Indeed, these dislocated voices, so full of wonder and fear, nostalgia and incredulity, with none of the cocksure-ness we might expect from incredibly brave men who've done something few folks have had or will ever have the chance to do, are what save the film for me. The astronaut's for the most part aren't directly commenting on the footage we're seeing, which allows their reflections and remembrances to take on a more abstract and subtle cast, and as a result they are very moving. But where the astronauts are afforded the opportunity to float around in the non-gravity of space, Reinert is all gravity, and his story telling is decidedly earthbound.
What kind of film would it have been if Reinert had echoed the spirit of the astronauts, and let the footage breathe, and let the viewer write their own story to the footage. Unfortunately, Reinert chose to turn it into a dress rehearsal for Apollo 13, without the near-fatal mishaps. The fact that Reinert would later go on to co-write the script for Apollo 13, and a couple of episodes from HBO's From the Earth to the Moon miniseries, comes as no surprise. He is clearing cutting his teeth on For All Mankind, flexing nascent narrative muscles under the guise of documentary. And who could blame him? America's quest to land on the moon is a great, heroic story, and here it came with the footage already shot (and shot, for the most part, by the story's very own protagonists!). But all the more reason why this film left me longing that someone with more sensitivity and self-assuredness as a filmmaker had been entrusted with this footage. Reinert is simply overmatched here.
Rating for Style: C-
Rating for Substance: B
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Image Transfer Review: Most of the footage in For All Mankind was shot in 16mm using converted Air Force "gun" cameras. When Reinert came to the project, he first blew up the original camera negative (which NASA had been keeping in cold storage) to 35mm, resulting in copies as pristine as possible, and as Reinert points out in the commentary, a lot of it in much better condition than what NASA has. Of course, blowing up 16mm to 35mm brings with it an increase of film grain, but Criterion has done an excellent job of mitigating this so that the grain never becomes a distraction. (Don't be put off by the overly grainy image of President Kennedy at the very beginning of the film—Reinert magnified the grain here on purpose.) The video imagery has been integrated fairly well into the overall mix, though it can be a let down, especially during the extended moon exploration sequences towards the latter end of the film.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: A brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix has been included for this release, a superb example of Criterion going the extra mile and giving For All Mankind the type of "theatrical" presentation the material deserves. While the majority of the film is dialogue (or monologue, in this case) driven, Reinert does include a healthy dose of contextual sound elements (it isn't clear if these are sound effects added later, or taken from NASA recordings), along with radio communication between the astronauts and mission control, and this is one of the few non-concert documentary soundtracks that will give your system a workout, especially in the launch montage about ten minutes into the film. I found Eno's score to be subtly epic without being grandiose and pompous.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 19 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Al Reinert, Eugene Cernan
- Commentary by Al Reinert and Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17
- "Paintings from the Moon", slide show of paintings with commentary from astronaut Alan L. Bean
- Astronaut Identification
- NASA Audio Highlights
- "3...2...1...Blast Off!" - Launch snippets
Commentary: Reinert and Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan share double-duty on the commentary. Perhaps not surprisingly, I found Reinert's commentary pompous and not very insightful, beyond some anecdotes on how the footage came about and how he came to be involved in the project. Fortunately it is Cernan who does most of the speaking on the commentary track, for his musings extend the reflections of the astronauts we've already heard from on the film's soundtrack, and help to fill in some of the factual details about the space program of the Sixties that the film itself doesn't touch on. Cernan speaks with the credibility and assuredness you would expect from someone who has walked on the moon, and commands respect in a way that Reinert simply never will. Reinert also has an unfortunately high-pitched and grating vocal delivery, making his intrusions into the discussion just that, intrusive and irritating. Reinert's justifications for some of the "artistic license" he took with the film are embarrassingly naïve (the most egregious being his statement that "in their space suits the astronauts all look alike anyway") and confirm that Reinert is simply not equipped to deal with the overpowering material.
"Paintings from the Moon": The DVD's other substantial extra is this "slide-show" of paintings by Apollo 12 and Skylab astronaut Alan L. Bean, accompanied by a four-minute introduction by Bean as well as his separate commentary on each painting. While Bean studied painting during his time as a test pilot in the Sixties, all of the paintings shown here were made after Bean retired in 1981. 24 paintings are shown in all, and Bean's commentary on each runs on average between two to three minutes. Bean's paintings are not great art, but that's not the point here. What's important, and what comes through clearly in his commentary, is that Bean has been able to use painting to work through the life-changing experience, and the complex emotions that result, of traveling to outer space. Because his paintings are figurative, often showing specific scenes or moments from his and others' time in space or on the moon, Bean spends most of his commentary explaining what we're seeing and giving us important information on the circumstances and details surrounding what's depicted. I found it a great supplement to the main viewing experience.
Astronaut Identification: This feature allows you to turn on subtitles (separate from the hearing-impaired English subtitles that are typical of Criterion releases) that identify onscreen the astronauts and key mission control personnel in the footage. While I don't recommend using it during a first-time viewing of For All Mankind, I did find this feature very helpful to have them turned on when viewing the film with Reinert and Cernan's commentary. The identification goes some ways towards restoring the individuality of the different Apollo missions and the men who actually made it happen that gets lost in Reinert's collapsed narrative. Unfortunately, the subtitles only identify the individuals in the footage, but not on the soundtrack. It would have been nice to be able to put names to the voices of the astronauts whose thoughts and musings are really the best thing about the film.
"NASA Audio Highlights and "3...2...1...Blast Off!": Criterion rounds out the disc's supplements with audio highlights and launch footage from different NASA missions. The audio highlights, 21 of them in all, are really a "who's who" collection of famous quotes from the Sixties space race period, with Armstrong's all-too familiar but still undeniably moving "one small step for man..." statement chief among them. Each sound clip is just a few seconds long, but collected together chronologically in one place like this, they form a unique capsulated history. The five short rocket booster clips, while visually spectacular, left me wanting more. Criterion has chosen to show just one representative launch from each of the five boosters used during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. I would have appreciated Criterion extending their usual exhaustiveness to this particular extra, and giving us all the launches.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsOn the commentary track, Reinert admits to having to "fake" one shot we see in the film, indeed one of the film's more spectacular and compelling shots. It is a shot taken from the point-of-view of one of the astronauts, of the moon being visible through the command module window just before takeoff. Reinert seems pleased with himself that this staged shot was his only transgression. To me, this is indicative of Reinert's entire naïve approach to the visual material—that the footage is there to serve the official story, the well-known history, the expected narrative. Never once did it occur to Reinert that perhaps the footage is the story here, that it is so amazing and full of its own inherent narrative it didn't need to be Hollywood-ized, shaped into yet another simplified heroic story of America beating the Russians and realizing the "impossible dream" of landing on the moon. That I came away from this DVD still moved, amazed, and full of admiration for the accomplishments of 24 incredibly brave men astronauts and the hard work of a mostly faceless supporting cast, is a tribute first to those very same people, and secondly to how truly powerful this footage is, and its ability to withstand the pedestrian and neatly packaged storytelling that has been imposed on it here.
Kurt Easterwood 2000-06-03