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Tough title to live up to. The lofty three-word phrase Al Reinert chose for his 1989 documentary on the Apollo space program comes from the plaque the first men on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, left there in July 1969—“We came in peace for all mankind”—and it echoes a phrase used by John F. Kennedy when, earlier in the decade, he declared America’s lunar intentions. So it’s an appropriate title, not just a noble-sounding one plucked from the cosmic void. But still, you have to admire the audacity of a director who calls his first movie For All Mankind. And Reinert, in the spirit of his subject, goes further than that: he takes the title literally.
Because what he does in this project, editing millions of feet of film and hundreds of hours of audio recordings into an eighty-minute feature, is treat the whole Apollo adventure as a single, epic trip to the moon, peopled by a crew so anonymous that it seems to represent, well, all mankind. In nine Apollo missions between 1968 and 1972, America sent twenty-four different men to the moon; twelve walked on it. Thirteen of the program’s original astronauts are heard on the movie’s soundtrack, reflecting on their out-of-this-world experiences; several more are seen and heard in archival footage. Not one is identified by name. The film simply proceeds, with serene inevitability, from one fiery liftoff to one gentle splashdown, not troubling itself to distinguish any individual mission from any other and never interrupting the hypnotic flow of otherworldly imagery with a shot of a talking head. At first, when one of the offscreen 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.
There are many varieties of wit in this conceit, among them the movie’s tacit acknowledgment that with their space suits on, you can’t tell one astronaut from another anyway. And although you might be able to differentiate their speaking voices by regional accents, the entire concept of “region” seems hilariously irrelevant when the person in question is traveling to, or walking on, the moon: nobody’s in Kansas anymore. In a sense, though, the best joke embedded in Reinert’s bold we’re-all-going-to-the-moon-together approach is that, like the Apollo program itself, it achieves by American means something that our space-race competitor of the sixties, the Soviet Union, might have appeared better equipped to do. 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, of Dovzhenko, of Vertov: to tell a story with a truly collective hero. No cult of personality here.
These cold-war ironies notwithstanding, there’s no waving of the flag in this picture—not even the one planted on the moon by Armstrong and Aldrin in the summer of ’69. We see that flag, of course. It flutters stiffly for a moment, and Americans may feel a brief, small tug of national pride at the sight, but the music does not swell to hype the feeling. (One of the many pleasures of this movie is its improbably delicate score, by Brian Eno, which is quiet, trancelike, a little spooky—in marked, and welcome, contrast to the aggressively martial-sounding music of almost every other space-exploration film.) In the context of For All Mankind, the Stars and Stripes seems less a patriotic emblem than a surrealist found object, one of those mysterious things that has no business being where it is.
The movie is all found stuff, really. After a short clip of a JFK speech, For All Mankind consists entirely of what might be called NASA home movies: film shot by the Apollo astronauts on their voyages and tapes of the voice transmissions between the spacecraft and mission control back in Houston—sometimes accompanied by footage of the tense, earnest, largely crew-cut men assembled there to monitor the spacemen’s progress and guide them safely home. Although these are original visual and aural documents, they are not arranged by Reinert and his editor, Susan Korda, in the style of a conventional (or even a mildly unconventional) documentary, not organized to educate the viewer about the history or the science of the Apollo project. Reinert and Korda, rather, deploy these fragments of recorded human experience in the manner of a collage, using evocative juxtapositions to create a unified effect that is more than the sum of its individual parts. If there’s anything educational about this, it’s in the nineteenth-century sense of “sentimental education”—the cultivation of feeling, the learning of the deep knowledge borne by the senses.
And in this respect, For All Mankind is peerless. This is one of the most overwhelmingly sensuous nonfiction films ever made, a garden of unearthly delights. You watch astronauts floating in the zero-gravity cabin of their command module, listening to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, see them gazing back at the receding Earth and then at the looming moon through the total, terrifying, weirdly beautiful blackness of empty space. They kid around or they focus on their many, many technical tasks, and sometimes they exclaim in awe at what they’re witnessing, a stark, eloquent “Wow” or something like; at other times they are silent. When they’re on the moon, bouncing uncertainly in its ancient gray dust, they look, in their bulky space suits, unreasonably happy, like bundled-up kids romping awkwardly in winter’s first big snowfall. A couple of them even break into song: “I was walking on the moon one day, in the merry, merry month of”—well, they can’t quite agree on what month it is, but what does time matter on the moon? In Houston, men in geeky glasses and ill-fitting shirts smoke and sweat and stare anxiously at computer screens, bearing down hard, except in those few, short moments when some tricky part of the mission has been negotiated successfully; then they can relax and, if the spirit moves them, let out a small whoop of joy.
What For All Mankind brings back from the moon is as real and tangible as a chunk of rock, but unmeasurable: a comically pure sense of the thrill of discovery, the nearly erotic shock of the new. For despite the daunting technical complexity of the Apollo program, despite the decidedly mixed political motives that set it in motion and the financial motives that helped keep it going, the human emotions and sensations this movie takes pains to reveal (and convey to the viewer) are basic, unadulterated, all but primitive—this great effort of will producing, in the spacemen themselves, feelings that are spontaneous, unmediated, innocent of will. For All Mankind is, in its way, a romantic vision of a sort that was popular in the late sixties, though rarely associated with the straight-arrow “establishment” that brought off Apollo. We all, Houston or Woodstock, wanted to get back to the garden.
Or that, at least, is what Al Reinert’s found-footage lunar ode suggests. It takes enormous daring to make an avant-garde movie about people as determinedly square as the scientists, technicians, and pilots of the Apollo team; where this journalist, who had never directed a movie before, found the inspiration for that unlikely project is—like so much in the film—unfathomable. For a detailed history of Apollo, sources abound. There are dozens of books and a large array of informative websites, including that of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration itself. In the late nineties, HBO aired a twelve-part docudrama series called From the Earth to the Moon, to which Reinert contributed two scripts. (The series is less exciting than it should have been—it tries too hard to be stirring—but its history is pretty reliable.) Reinert also had a hand in writing Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), which effectively (if, again, a bit too strenuously) dramatizes the 1970 mission that failed to land on the moon but succeeded, against long odds, in getting home. And more conventional talking-head documentaries continue to be made, like Jeffrey Roth’s rather stodgy The Wonder of It All (2007) and David Sington’s much more thoughtful and imaginative In the Shadow of the Moon (2007).
But For All Mankind is irreplaceable: one of a kind and likely to remain so. It is, formally, among the most radical American films of the past quarter century and, emotionally, among the most powerfully affecting. It makes its impossible title stick. In For All Mankind, we all lift off together, and we all come home the same way, and few movies have captured so well the rhapsodic absurdity of our common voyage.
Terrence Rafferty is the author of The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing About the Movies. He was the film critic at the Nation, a staff writer for the New Yorker, a critic at large for GQ, and has taught writing at Princeton University. His work has also appeared in the Atlantic, the Village Voice, and Sight & Sound, among other publications. He is now a frequent contributor to the New York Times.