25th Jun2019

‘For All Mankind’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Jim Lovell, Russell Schweickart, Eugene Cernan, Michael Collins, Charles Conrad | Directed by Al Reinert

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NASA’s historic Apollo programme only becomes more fascinating as time passes and technology advances. Ahead of the release of Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11, Criterion are offering a chance to see another Space Race documentary, similarly relying on remastered NASA footage and the voices of people involved in those groundbreaking (ground-leaving?) space missions, some fifty years ago.

Charitably, director Al Reinert and editor Susan Korda don’t just focus on the first Moon landing, but rather cover multiple ventures, from Apollo 8 through to the final Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Six years in the making, this 1989 version is only slightly less barebones than its original 1983 format. There’s little information about who is speaking at any given moment, or even which mission we’re watching (tip: turn on the subtitles). Some of the post-dubbed sound effects – including explosion SFX and added voices – are a little cheesy. But the music is something else: the Apollo album is one of Brian Eno’s most enduring and best-loved LPs. Not even a ghastly electronic version of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” can spoil the overall effect.

Political and social context stand aside for amusing and engaging micro moments: How to use a toilet in zero gravity; how an incarcerated crew entertains itself (country music, mostly); or Gene Cernan and “Jack” Schmidtt messing about on the lunar surface.

It’s all about the images. The odd shonky composite photo can’t spoil the playful, intimate scenes of craft life; the beauty of earthrise from a distant world; the fragility of a tiny lander drifting over another world; or the astronauts spacewalking hundreds of miles above our beloved pale blue dot. We see how the tech rapidly improved, culminating in some stunning handheld camerawork from the Apollo 17 mission, and some glitteringly pristine hi-def footage from Apollo 16.

The Apollo programme was staggeringly sophisticated in terms of trigonometry, training and ambition. Behind the segregated scenes, of course, the divided world was less sophisticated. We must avert our eyes from the overwhelming male whiteness of the control room, the absence of those vital “Hidden Figures”, and the outdated use of the masculine noun “mankind”. (To his credit, JFK preferred the phrase “for all people”.)

Thankfully, the voices of the astronauts tend to embrace humanity’s universal hopes and dreams, alluding to a more progressive world. Occasionally those voices touch the poetic: the description of our planet floating in “a blackness beyond conception.” Another astronaut describes a dream which surely inspired Duncan Jones’s sci-fi classic Moon, as he speaks of a rover on the lunar surface and how he found himself inside.

For All Mankind is more of a mood piece than an informative documentary – and perhaps it’s more powerful and moving because of it. A serenely awestruck atmosphere is maintained throughout, and it is defiantly positive (an emergency aboard Apollo 13 is quickly fixed with tape). It’s a film about wonder and whimsy, more than technicalities and political tensions. With that limited brief, it’s an awe-inspiring piece of work, if a strictly telescopic one.

DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:

  • New, restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by producer-director Al Reinert, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack)
  • Audio commentary featuring Reinert and Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon
  • An Accidental Gift: The Making of “For All Mankind,” a new documentary featuring interviews with Reinert, Apollo 12 and Skylab astronaut Alan Bean, and NASA archive specialists Don Pickard, Mike Gentry, Morris Williams, and Chuck Welch
  • On Camera, a collection of excerpted on-screen interviews with fifteen of the Apollo astronauts
  • New video programme about Bean’s artwork, accompanied by a gallery of his paintings
  • NASA audio highlights and lift-off footage
  • Optional on-screen identification of astronauts and mission control specialists
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring essays by film critic Terrence Rafferty and Reinert

For All Mankind is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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