' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: For All Mankind (1989)

Friday, July 01, 2022

Friday's Old Fashioned: For All Mankind (1989)

Al Reinert’s 1989 Apollo mission documentary “For All Mankind” opens with footage of John F. Kennedy’s “we choose to go to the Moon” speech in 1962. If it’s a conventional curtain-raiser, it also provides our bearings and, more importantly, perspective about all that we do not see between JFK’s oration and the lunar landings – that is, everything, Project Mercury, Project Gemini, the politics of the Space Race, and so on and so forth. Reinert’s curiosity was piqued not by the infinite nuts and bolts that made the mission possible but the six million feet worth of footage that was shot by the Apollo astronauts and then tucked away by NASA as if it contained state secrets rather than sumptuous pictorial splendors of the universe, combing through them with his team to construct a documentary that widened people’s memories of the moon landings from those familiar constricted frames of television to the wide screens of the movies. (This reviewer pitifully, paradoxically, watched “For All Mankind” on TV. I apologize to the movie gods. I had no other choice.) Reinert’s achievement is astonishing, not least because as a journalist by trade he had never made a movie and yet still rendered a true motion picture rather than mere documentary as journalism. He knows that an image of the shadow cast by the Saturn V rocket across the Cape Canaveral grass put the towering legacy of the lunar landings into sharper perspective than any interview or monologue.

Rather than provide of an overview of each Apollo mission, and rather than even cite which image belongs to which Apollo incarnation, Reinert mixes all the footage to craft a composite moon mission, of sorts. He augments this sensation by eschewing talking head shots of the thirteen astronauts interviewed, using only their audio, and forgoing citing their names, too, whenever they speak, suggesting they are all one voice. That’s bold, and if anything, Reinert’s original vision was even bolder. Initially, “For All Mankind” was only the footage and the musical score, no narration, but the audience discontent from a limited run prior to the film’s completion and release caused Reinert to go back and add those interviews. I wish I could have seen this version in addition to “For All Mankind.” It’s not that the astronauts don’t deserve to relay their own point-of-view of the experience but that, well, the footage itself is their point-of-view; they shot those images in space. What’s more, Reinert sometimes falls back on too neatly matching up their words and images, making for obvious visual underlining rather than the movie speaking for itself. Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan cites “a blackness that is almost beyond conception,” an admittedly moving phrase that also does not need to be uttered since Brian Eno’s score has already lifted “For All Mankind” into the spiritual realm.

No, the voices of the astronauts work better within the framework of the existing footage itself, the joviality as they walk around the moon and the formality as they run various surface experiments eliciting a fascinating disconnect with the eerie images of the moon’s grey sands stretching out into forever, providing an even greater weight to the inherent “holy shit, they’re on the moon” sensation. Other images conjure up beautiful echoes. The command module looks as lonely as earth in the infinite black of space and adds perspective to the familiar image of the lunar module gliding over the moon just below, evoking how its all on its own. In contrast, an earlier image beneath one of the Apollo spacecrafts of the impressive blue expanse of Earth turning looks for all the world like a vast river. It put me in the mind of 17th-century explorers, as if the spacecraft were a raft. Of course, such explorers set out in the name of their respective nations, Hudson for England, Champlain for France. And while there are enough American flags present in “For All Mankind” to appease the patriotic bookkeeping of the Marco Rubios of the world, deliberately refraining from a Space Race overview and purposely keeping these 20th-century explorers offscreen ensures that “For All Mankind” lives out its title. 

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