Imagine that you have the opportunity to put together a film featuring authentic NASA footage that has never been seen by the public.
From the very beginning, with John F Kennedy giving his speech heralding plans to send a vessel to the moon, For All Mankind is a totally gripping documentary told by the personnel of the Apollo missions.
If you’re interested in space travel, then this is ideal for you. It’s a short, at only 80 minutes, insight in the preparations for a NASA space mission, compiling footage from a number of the missions to tell one coherent story of a mission from start to finish.
We see astronauts being suited up and tested, boarding the shuttle, their flight into space, landing on the moon and the famous Armstrong moon walk, exploring the surface of the moon, before returning home. The hardest thing about all this is you can’t really explain how grand it looks in words; it truly has to be seen.
We see Houston, where the mission controllers spend their time staring at screens, talking to the astronauts and hoping nothing goes wrong, whilst drinking copious amounts of coffee and chain smoking (indoors) cigarettes.
The voiceover (a subtitle track tells you who is speaking and the mission they were on) is just as interesting, with astronauts explaining their mental state, the procedures that led up to what they were doing and generally talking about what happens and why. You realise, to these guys, it isn’t just a job but a massive responsibility and an opportunity of a lifetime.
The film footage is incredible, considering it wasn’t specifically shot to be shown to the public. Some of the scenes are actually quite awe-inspiring, whilst others leave you wanting just that tiny bit more.
There’s a certain majesty to the space footage. The footage shot from space of Earth is remarkable and so difficult to explain in a written review. It’s also bizarre watching them in zero-gravity, moving around, letting small objects float around the cabin; we’ve seen it in films with well controlled and choreographed camera work, but here it’s almost like a home video.
There’s a lot of home video style footage, obviously, thanks to the location, and some of it will probably make you feel quite sick as the cameras do jump about a fair bit. It’s not a bad thing and gives a sense of motion to the footage, especially during the space walk where the capsule is rotating at a fair speed thanks to the footage being sped up.
Intersperse scenes of the calm, but exhausting, mission control with the frenetic footage of space, and you’ve got a wonderfully crafted juxtaposition that makes you appreciate that the space craft is where it really happens; more importantly, whilst both sides are in touch with each other, neither side is really in control. Nothing highlights this more than when the Apollo capsule runs into trouble and needs rapid repairing in space with Houston only able to give instructions in the hope it works.
The moon walk footage makes up a large section of the film; it keeps with the sometimes serious, sometimes comic nature of what we’re seeing. The risk of tripping and falling is highlighted in severe contrast to the astronauts skipping across the surface of the moon. Conspiracy theorists will have a field day as they spot shadows and flags flapping, etc.
There’s a lot to discover in this film. Astronauts were allowed to carry a tape recorder to play music, there was no limit to the things they’d let float around, they were encouraged to make the home movies, meals were assigned by day, going to the toilet definitely wasn’t easy, and space crafts were messy places!
There’s more to it than this, though, and you will find yourself, as I did, watching it more than once.
Al Reinhart’s commentary is just as interesting as the film. Hearing him talk about his experience in making the film and the vast amounts of footage he has access to, you just wish he’d had opportunity to expand this into a longer production, or even a series. He’s honest in his occasional shifting of scenes to help tell a story. It’s not necessarily chronological, but it’s done for the specific, and effective, purpose of telling a gripping, interesting story.
He is joined by Eugene Cernan, Commander of Apollo 17 and last man to set foot on the moon, providing some technical background and other stories of interest. It’s worth listening to, which is far more than can be said for some commentaries, and could almost (very, very nearly) function as a primary soundtrack as it’s that good!
There’s also an 31 minute documentary entitled An Accidental Gift: The Making of For All Mankind, which gives an insight into why and how footage was chosen and Reinhart’s overall vision for this project, including additional footage. There are probably so many more stories to tell and it’s a real shame that the documentary is so short.
There’s also an audio only collection of 21 NASA in-flight audio and flight recordings. They range from the inspiring to the sublime and would have made great inclusions in the documentary itself.
3,2,1… Blast Off… is a compilation of five video clips showing the rocket boosters from various missions. It doesn’t have a commentary and only runs for 2 minutes and 34 seconds.
Finally, there’s a collection of artwork by astronaut and artist Alan Bean. The collection lasts 45 minutes and includes commentary and a video introduction from Bean. It’s definitely interesting and worth watching, especially if you’re interested in art, but would have made a far better book!
With such quality extras, why only 4 stars? As I said earlier, the ‘making of’ could have done to be longer and the artwork section shorter, especially when you consider that this documentary wouldn’t have come into existence without the vision of Reinhart.
The film quality, for the most part, is exceptional. Of course, it comes from a variety of sources, but it doesn’t make the film any less interesting. Audio comes from either spoken commentary, which is high quality, or actual NASA recordings, lower quality but still clear; it’s all presented in 2.1 audio.
All in all, For All Mankind is probably the best documentary about space travel I’ve ever seen. The only footage is NASA footage, no recreations or re-enactments, knowledgeable commentary from people who were there, and a true testament to man’s endeavour and achievements.
The extras are interesting and thought provoking, filling out an exceptional DVD almost perfectly.
For All Mankind is out now.