June 5, 2008

For All Mankind (1989)
Grade: 70/100

Director: Al Reinert
Stars: Jim Lovell, Russell Schweickart, Eugene Cernan

What it's about. Director Al Reinert and editor Susan Korda sifted through extensive film footage of the various Apollo lunar missions (Apollo 8 through Apollo 17). From this, they have created what appears to be footage of a single Apollo mission: the pre-flight preparations, the take-off, the Earth orbit, the lunar orbit, the moon landing, exploration of the Moon itself, and the return voyage. Ground control in Houston is also included, as are key fragments of the famous John Kennedy speech that that established the goal of the the space program: to the moon and back.

The footage is actually a "best of" compilation of all the missions, but the viewer can be excused if he or she believes it all to be the famous Apollo 8 mission, in which "the Eagle has landed" and Neil Armstrong takes "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Nonetheless, the footage is (practically) all authentic, and is never short of dramatic.

The drama comes from two facets. These are people doing things that no one has done before. And their lives are precarious, as confirmed by the roster of astronaut deaths that the film is dedicated to, three of which occurred during the first Apollo mission.

In addition to securing acres of magnificent footage, Reinert also corralled no less than 13 astronauts from the lunar missions. Their reminiscences provide voiceover throughout the film. Brian Eno supplies an appropriately cosmic soundtrack.

How others will see it. It is hard to believe that a third of a century has passed since the last Moon landing. As the Apollo missions recede into history, they also slowly recede from living memory. This well-edited and authentic documentary is priceless from a historical perspective. In fact, its historical importance exceeds its contribution to cinema, although the latter should not be underestimated. It is one thing to edit stock footage, and quite another to substitute first-party memories for the opinions of third-party scholars. Scholars tend to have their agendas, biases, and misconceptions. The astronauts were there.

Unexpected excitement occurs when the space capsule develops an oxygen leak. At mission control, the concern is intense, but the astronauts remain calm although focuses. Houston devises a solution, and it works. Everything else goes without a hitch.

How I felt about it. The astronauts are there to do a job, but they sometimes take the time to appreciate the marvels of the moment. Perhaps wisely, they never discuss the nationalistic aspects of the Apollo program. The film title is For All Mankind, but perhaps For the Glory of the United States is a more accurate title, as offensive as that might be to some. The space program was all about the space race, between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. During the 1960s, the goal wasn't really to send up satellites that forecast the weather, provide pay television or global cell phones, or examine remote galaxies. No, the real goal was to show up the Soviet Union, to prevent the Russians from getting to the Moon first. Or from developing terrifying space weapons, a possibility not as far-fetched as skeptics might believe.

Capitalism and Communism battled it out. The Russians competed bravely, but gradually lost their technological edge during the 1960s. In the end, the U.S. had the larger and more efficient economy, which trumped the ability of the Soviets to concentrate resources on important goals.

All of this greater political backdrop is absent from For All Mankind. Which is as it should be, since the movie is about the Apollo moonshots from the perspective of the astronauts themselves. Who couldn't care less what Leonid Brezhnev might have thought about it all.

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