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There have been numerous books, films and documentaries on NASA's Apollo space program from the bestseller Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon by David Reynolds, Wally Schirra & Von Hardesty to Ron Howard's 1995 recreation of the Apollo 13 mission to HBO's documentary mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (1998), but For All Mankind (1989) is easily the most visually stunning and unconventional approach to documenting the nine Apollo missions that occurred between 1968 and 1972. Instead of taking a chronological approach, complete with talking head interviews in the style of most documentaries, filmmaker Al Reinert painstakingly reviewed six million feet of archival footage from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's holdings along with 80 hours of original interviews he had conducted and fashioned a hypnotic visual and aural experience as seen through the eyes of the astronauts. There is no narrator spouting scientific facts or high tech jargon. Instead, Reinert blends together comments by thirteen of the original astronauts (others are glimpsed and heard in archival footage but no one is identified), sound effects and an appropriately eerie music score by Brian Eno. The result is closer to an experimental film but one that is unmistakably a tribute to America's foray into the international space race to the moon that was first set in motion by President John F. Kennedy's September 12th speech in 1962; he vowed that the U.S. would land a spacecraft on the moon and that "it will be done before the end of this decade." NASA accepted the challenge and it became a reality.
The Apollo space program was enormously costly - an estimation of several billion dollars would not be unlikely- and extensively documented in terms of the cameras that each mission was equipped with for photographing every aspect of the journey. As a result, For All Mankind could be considered the most expensive movie ever made when you consider what it cost to produce all the footage that NASA ultimately acquired. Reinert recalled, 'I began interviewing the Apollo astronauts in 1976. They were mostly retired astronauts by then, changed men, excerpts from the tapes constitute the major part of the soundtrack of For All Mankind. The movie thus speaks with the intimate voice of personal experience.' He added that 'The astronauts went into space carrying movie cameras ' 16mm data-acquisition cameras ' \which they reached for reflexively, like tourists, whenever they saw something surprising or spectacular or merely important. They saw such things almost continually. As a result, they brought back thousands of feet of amazing film, perhaps the most extraordinary footage ever shot by human beings.'(from the Criterion Collection DVD liner notes for For All Mankind).
Reinert first got interested in doing a film about the Apollo missions after researching a story about all of the astronauts for the Texas Monthly in 1979. In an interview with Anne S. Lewis of The Austin Chronicle, the director said, 'I was amazed that no one had made a movie out of this stuff. Television was the worst way to see the moon; the more you shrink what was the biggest location shoot in cinema history, the more it looked phoney. It just had to be seen on the big screen.'
Initially, Reinert thought For All Mankind would be easy to assemble due to the extensive available footage but it ended up taking ten years to complete. Part of the long production process involved the enlargement of the 16mm footage he selected for his documentary. Since the material had originally been shot on a special type of film that could not be removed from the Johnson Space Center premises, Reinert had to get approval to bring in an optical printer and enlarge the film on site, frame by frame. According to the director, it took him a year and a half just to print 80 minutes of film.
Regarding his approach to the film, especially in regards to the unique sound design, Reinert noted, 'Every sound in the film was basically a choice and not just the music we commissioned from Brian Eno. We were using the film NASA had shot but very little of the videotape they shot. We took sound bites from Apollo 12 and paired them with footage from 15 because we thought it was a nice fit. But we just made it up, those sounds never happened in real life. There's less than four minutes of actual sync sound in the movie.' It's also apparent that Reinert didn't restrict himself to only using Apollo material as there is footage from the Gemini space program including the Gemini 4 mission in which Ed White became the first American to walk on the moon.
When For All Mankind was released, most critics praised it such as the New York Post's David Edelstein who wrote, 'It amounts to an ode to space travel, and it's awesomely beautiful. You've caught bits and pieces of this footage on TV, but the rhythms of the movie are so supple that everything in it seems new; drifting along with these astronauts and hearing their thoughts, you'll feel as if you're seeing this for the first time.' The Los Angeles Times called it 'a remarkable labor of love' and 'an unprecedented thrill,' while The New York Times reviewer wrote, 'What emerges is an amazingly fresh visual immersion in space, and a film that works far better when dealing with inanimate objects than with humans.' If there was any criticism of the film, it was this latter comment that reflected what many reviewers had voiced: the human element had been minimized by the director's refusal to present the astronauts as identifiable personalities and camera subjects. Film critic Terrence Rafferty, in the linear notes for the Criterion DVD edition, wrote, 'At first, when one of the off screen voices says something unusually poetic, or funny, you wonder whose voice it is, but after a while you stop wondering. It doesn't seem to matter. It's everybody's voice. In the vastly complex communal enterprise of sending men to the moon [and getting them back], the individualist society somehow managed to outperform the collectivist state. And in For All Mankind, Al Reinert, from Texas, fulfills the dream of the great Soviet film artists of the silent era, the dream of Eisenstein, of Pudovkin, or Dovzhenko, of Vertov: to tell a story with a truly collective hero. No cult of personality here.'
Of course, there were a few critics who complained about some of the astronauts' sound bites that were featured in the film such as Jonathan Mandell of Newsday who wrote, 'too many of their voice-overs are excruciatingly banal: One of the first human presences on this unexplored new world says, 'This is one of the neatest things I ever saw.' Even more negative was Georgia Brown of The Village Voice who seemed to prefer the subject matter of Michael Moore's Roger and Me, released the same year. 'I was merely bored,' she wrote, 'even the space nut accompanying me was yawning. Those giant-steppers for mankind are pygmies in the vocabulary department. Try listening to dialogue like this for 80 minutes: 'Gosh, here we are, we're getting real close.' I'd rather be in Flint [Michigan, the setting of Roger and Me].' Maybe the Apollo teams should have taken along a poet or a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer to more eloquently express the amazing sights and feelings experienced by the space travelers but when faced with such overpowering beauty and mystery, it's hard not to be struck dumb by the wonder of it all. In the end, Reinert's film is as much about a spiritual quest as anything else. 'Touching the moon was, by definition, a work of inspired imagination and high art, and scarcely requires further embellishment,' Reinert wrote. 'It speaks for itself more eloquently than it can ever be interpreted: an age-old dream that at long last was fulfilled. The movie is a testament to the power of primitive vision and the strength of human will.'
For All Mankind would go on to receive an Oscar® nomination for Best Documentary, losing the award to Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. Al Reinert, who made his film debut with this feature, would return to the same subject matter as a screenwriter in Apollo 13 and the HBO series, From the Earth to the Moon. His only other feature to date is the documentary A Land Called Texas (2003).
Producers: Betsy Broyles Breier, Al Reinert
Director: Al Reinert
Music: Brian Eno
Film Editing: Susan Korda
Cast: James A. Lovell Jr. (Narrator, Apollo 8, 13), Russell L. Schweickart (Narrator, Apollo 9), Eugene A. Cernan (Narrator, Apollo 10, 17), Michael Collins (Narrator, Apollo 11), Charles P. Conrad Jr. (Narrator, Apollo 12), Richard F. Gordon Jr. (Narrator, Apollo 12), Alan L. Bean (Narrator, Apollo 12), John L. Swigert Jr. (Narrator, Apollo 13), Stuart A. Roosa (Narrator, Apollo 14), James B. Irwin (Narrator, Apollo 15), Kenneth Mattingly II (Narrator, Apollo 16), Charles M. Duke Jr. (Narrator, Apollo 16), Harrison H. Schmitt (Narrator, Apollo 17).
by Jeff Stafford
'For All Mankind,' The Austin Chronicle, Interview with Al Reinert by Anne S. Lewis
Washington Post review by Rita Kempley
The Criterion Collection DVD liner notes of For All Mankind
Criterion Collection blog post by Matthew Dessem