Criterion Cuts: “For All Mankind” and the Awe of Truth

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

So every July Barnes and Noble has a Criterion sale, and while I always know about it I always manage to be really broke right around the time that all the Criterion titles hit 50% off. And I’m so broke lately that I was going to not buy anything at all during this summer sale, even though I generally treat the B&N sale as Movie Christmas. But when it turned out during the first night of the sale that it was also stacking a buy two, get one free deal I pinched my pennies, lived off of ramen for a week, and managed to afford three bright new shiny Criterion BDs.

Today’s movie is the first of these discs, though it’s a movie that I wanted to pick up after randomly watching it on Hulu Plus even before I started writing this article. Which explains why I picked it, as it’s not an obvious choice considering the usual type of movie I cover for this article. And with that, we might as well get right into it.

For All Mankind (1989)

To talk about For All Mankind is about talking about my reaction to For All Mankind, because in reality there’s very little that I can take and pick apart the same way I do other movies. That’s an inherent part of its premise, though. For All Mankind isn’t like other movies, or even other documentaries, even other works that cover the same material. The difference? For All Mankind has the benefit of being assembled from some of the most unique sources on Earth and above it.

So yes, For All Mankind is about space. Assembled in 1989 by Al Reinert, it’s a chronicle of the entire slate of Apollo missions NASA took into orbit and to the moon. Almost all of the footage (minus one recreated shot of the moon as seen from Earth) were taken directly from footage shot by NASA cameras both on Earth and by the astronauts themselves in space. The footage, dozens of hours cobbled together from the array of cameras used during those years where we traveled out onto another celestial body and stood upon it, was taken and edited together into one single voyage: from pre-flight to the surface of the moon and back to the little blue ball we call home.

As might be expected, taking actual NASA footage, most of it unseen save for the people who had originally shot it, means getting some of the most compelling actual footage you could ever hope to work with. Actual rocket launches are one thing, but seeing astronauts actually floating in space, walking on the moon, doing science and goofing around is something else entirely. And on top of this Reinert recorded dozens of hours of interviews with the astronauts of the Apollo program, editing them together into a single narrative. Like the film itself, there’s no identifiers. There are plenty of speakers, but the movie itself works to compress them into one voice to reveal a single truth.

That truth is the universal reaction of all the astronauts interviewed: the sense of awe, the humbling realization of scale, and the profound reaction to being among the few dozen people who have left our planet and gone elsewhere. And what’s amazing is just how similar the narratives are, how often they contain the same stories: joy, anxiety, a sense of significance. These people all seem to have been profoundly touched in the same ways, and why not? They were all a part of something that still might be the greatest human achievement.

It’s easy for those of us born after the moon landing to just acknowledge it as a given, something that happened before us and thus is a pre-condition of the universe. But what For All Mankind does more than anything is remind us just how incredible it was, not through driving the point home but by showing exactly what it meant and how it looked, how very real the smallness of humanity is and how big the blackness of space can be. It’s a narrative about our potential to overcome ourselves and achieve greatness, even if it’s fleeting and was predicated on political maneuvering and fraught with actual physical danger. The movie, rightly, is dedicated to those who died in pursuit of this dream, and the movie doesn’t blink about presenting even famous events from Apollo 13 as just things that happen when we struggle to exceed our basic animal abilities.

And all of it is accompanied by the most beautiful footage you could ever hope to see, even if much of it is grainy 16 mm film shot by unprofessional camera men. There’s a rightness to the raw immediacy of the footage, the undeniable truth that this wasn’t the result of professional camera operators or directors trying to tell narrative, but the recordings of explorers bearing witness to these grand moments, documenting history even as they were living it. It’s that aspect of film that I feel only rarely becomes immediately apparent: it exists not only to entertain and tell stories, but to cross time and space to show us things as they happened. That it can impart even a small portion of the wonder these astronauts had during their voyages is a miracle in itself, that it’s done in something that exists for anyone to seek out and watch is a testament to the power of cinema itself.

One last point: since I actually have this on disk, I happily dove into the special features, which include a ton of one-on-one astronaut interviews and other NASA footage that didn’t make it into the actual film. But more importantly, there’s a commentary with Reinert and Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan, also known as the last person (so far) to have been on the moon. It’s an incredible track, with him talking about the space program and what it means to be a part of that small group of people who have been in space. He’s incredible to listen to: angry about the current state of our space program, contemplative about humanity’s future in the universe, and incongruously bravado-filled about the military heritage of the astronauts as a group of people.

In some ways, it works as a counterpoint to the actual movie itself, as it takes a universal approach in making the Apollo missions into one narrative for humanity in general. This is specific, one person talking about their own feelings and problems and opinions, with foibles and emotions that don’t fit cleanly into the film being presented. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and if you have the chance to see the movie on disk, it’s well worth watching again for that insight. If nothing else, astronauts seem like the most justifiably indignant people about NASA budgets in the world.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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