If you’re looking to commemorate the moonwalk—the original moonwalk, that is—on July 20, look not to the stars but to your DVD vendor, and pick up a copy of Al Reinert’s magnificent For All Mankind (1989). The filmmaker contributed to the scripts of Apollo 13 (1995) and the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (1998), but this isn’t standard docudrama, not that those two accounts are unworthy of phrase. In one of the supplements on this newly remastered Criterion Collection disc (which supersedes a 2000 edition), Reinert says the U.S. government emphasized the political and scientific aims of the Apollo missions; his aim was to retrieve the artistic side, which was ripe for discovery in the millions of feet of film archived at the Johnson Space Center.
Reinert, who had logged dozens of hours of interviews with the Apollo astronauts he calls “extraterrestrial humans,” was the right person for the job. In 80 minutes the film distills the essence of the program, using the best footage from all the flights to convey the excitement of liftoff, landing, exploration, and return. For his purpose Reinert considered Apollo “different takes from the same script,” for which he used material left on the center’s extremely well-maintained cutting-room floor. The astronauts were equipped with 16mm data-acquisition cameras and, outside of certain specific tasks, were allowed to use them as they wished.
Their awestruck, even foolhardy, tourism brings us closer to the “magnificent desolation” of the moon than ever before, in previously unseen moments that didn’t make the newscasts. One of the astronauts (who typically favored Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Frank Sinatra on the job) plays Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra” in one segment, and refers to the great success of 2001. (I trust he didn’t see Robert Altman’s 1968 drama Countdown, which imagines a brutally ironic outcome after that one small step for man is taken.) It’s fun to watch the lunar module zip along the moon’s surface, and more amusing still when one of the astronauts trips and stumbles on an outcropping of rock—until we’re reminded that a single tiny tear in the suit would have been deadly. The ultimate reality show, which seems to have gone off the air permanently in 1972, mingled great beauty with great fearlessness and ingenuity.
The film is co-narrated by the men who flew the missions, who aren’t identified as they speak. The focus is on the team effort and the collective achievement, with, in the closing credits, acknowledgment of their participation and all the men who gave their lives to the extraordinary undertaking of manned spaceflight, including the Soviets who were so close, yet so far. The movie lives up to its title. The score provides a continual grace note—critic Terrence Rafferty notes in his booklet essay that space exploration films tend to be backed by martial music, while For All Mankind has celestial themes by Brian Eno, which reflect the spiritual side to the astronauts’ comments and are suitable for contemplation and dreaming.
The new disc, handsomely tuned up, retains the previous commentary track by Reinert and Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan, the last of those original moonwalkers. Besides an option to ID the astronauts and mission control personnel as they speak in the film (a little bit of a cheat, but you’ll be curious), other disc extras include a making-of documentary with Reinert, Apollo 12 and Skylab astronaut Alan Bean, and NASA archive specialists; interviews with 15 of the Apollo astronauts (heroes all); and audio highlights (“Houston, we’ve had a problem”) and additional liftoff footage provided by NASA. An Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature, For All Mankind is the perfect way to blast-off a celebration of our unparalleled achievement of forty years ago.
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