Thursday, June 26, 2008

365 Films, #2: For All Mankind


First released Nov. 1, 1989
Directed by Al Reinert

When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to travel into space. Not just in that childlike sci-fi imaginary way, where you're out there with laser guns, battling aliens and asteroids. I wanted to be an astronaut. The kind of supernerd who gets to be the one person in billions chosen to exit the planet and see what's out there beyond our atmosphere.

When my family would go to the beach when I was younger (hell, even every once in a while in my later years) I would sometimes sit in the ocean water and slowly drift out, past where the waves broke, into what I basically saw as "shark territory." You could no longer feel the sand beneath your feet, and you had no idea what was going on below. This was on the East Coast, where the water isn't the crisp, clear blue hue that it is in the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the country.

I would keep drifting out, always aware and somewhat frightened about the possible depths below me (Jaws fucked me up pretty bad, and I've feared deep water ever since seeing it as a kid), and note my placement in relation to all the swimmers around me. Eventually, I would notice that I was further out than anyone else, and this thought always pleased me. I was the furthest away from my country, from humanity, as anyone out there that day. In a way, I was adrift.

I can't even comprehend the idea of being in space. Of standing on the moon and seeing the earth in the sky, as if your entire reality has flipped. For All Mankind is a mesmerizing attempt to articulate that feeling. Assembled from footage shot by NASA and its astronauts between December 1968 and November 1972, the time period when the U.S. sent 9 manned flights to the moon, Mankind blurs the footage into a singular experience. Rather than give a listing of trivia and statistics that you could find in a dozen other space documentaries, the movie focuses more on the emotional voyage as seen and narrated by astronauts like Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell and a handful of other legends.

I know the magic of the idea of reaching the moon has been lost to the repetition of history at this point, but if you can insert yourself into the shoes of the people living in that era, it's still pretty amazing. John F. Kennedy opens the movie with his inspiring speech about America's need to reach the moon ("We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard"), a speech so visionary, so seemingly impossible that he even mentions the fact that this kind of journey is going to take the invention of metals that man hadn't yet created. The craziest thing about that speech is that it was given mere weeks after man's first foray into space. These guys just came up with the recipe and Kennedy is demanding the icing on top!

Reinert does an incredible job of sifting through thousands of hours of NASA footage and creating a linear recreation of a trip to the moon. True, some nerds might be put off by seeing footage from Apollo 11 over "narration" from an astronaut not on that journey. But really, as far as recreating the intensity, the surreality, and the awe-inspiring vision of such a trip, Reinert nails it.

Reinert gets some assistance from Brian Eno's stirring ambient soundtrack, which evokes the otherwordliness, serenity and mystery of space. Just the use of "An Ending (Ascent)" in particular parts of the film is breathtaking. While Eno recorded the soundtrack (the gorgeous Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks) for release in 1983, the film was delayed for years after. Because of that, the movie features a number of Eno tracks from alternate albums, along with tracks from Buck Owens, Frank Sinatra and Merle Haggard. The use of Owens and Haggard is especially cool as the soundtrack to scenes where the astronauts have a little fun in zero gravity.

I've always been a big fan of movies like Baraka, full of imagery and sounds from places that I feel like I'll never get to see in "real life." For All Mankind is pretty much the ultimate version of that idea: it's a hypnotic, gorgeous postcard from a land almost no one in our generation will ever get to see for themselves. It's almost heartbreaking when you think about it.

After watching For All Mankind (this was the Criterion edition) I immediately started a second viewing, listening to a truly informative commentary track by director Al Reinert and Apollo 17 Commander Eugene A. Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon. Cernan's attemps to describe the sensation of not only travelling through space but through time (several times he references the sensation of travelling 30,000 miles an hour and seeing the sun rise and set over continents) is mindboggling.

Watch this movie late at night, with the lights out, on a gigantic television.

For more on For All Mankind:
- More movie information at the Internet Movie Database
- Buy Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks from
- Buy For All Mankind at Amazon

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