The Rumpus Review of For All Mankind


There’s a moment in For All Mankind when a couple of astronauts are wandering around the surface of the moon, collecting rock samples and staring in amazement at the black horizon. They’re giddy with excitement, jumping around like toddlers on M&Ms and acid.
And one of them pauses to sum things up. “Boy,” he says, “is this a neat way to travel.”

The Apollo space missions were mostly science, yes, and a little bit of Cold War politicking, of course, but they were also one of human history’s greatest sensory experiences. You’ll feel this way too if you watch this movie and get as psyched as I did to see a bunch of grown men toss around a small flashlight in zero gravity. Avatar has nothing on lunar travel.

Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary tells the story of the six successful Apollo missions in the form of a single trip from the Earth to the moon and back. The trip has no organizing genius or personality, no Ed Harris to anchor its various events, no invisible narrator to explain even bare dates and times. In For All Mankind, these missions are a truly collective event. The movie’s audio track is composed of interviews Reinert conducted with the astronauts, in addition to several of their transmissions to Earth. Its images are culled entirely from the NASA film archives, and the overwhelming majority of them had never before been available to the public and none of them were previously viewable in the pristine 35mm prints reproduced here.

The images, especially, do not disappoint. They are perfect and unnerving, just like the place in which they were filmed. Reinert includes the famous image of Neil Armstrong hopping onto the surface of the moon like a man test-driving new bionic limbs. But he also includes the discarding of a rocket stages as it was seen by a camera in the tail of the spacecraft, an early spacewalk filmed at what looks like six frames a second, a train of astronauts walking toward the cockpit in preparation for blast-off, each carrying his own Samsonite-sized breathing machine. There are images from the cramped spacecraft cabin looking back toward a diminishing Earth, and even a kind of lunar blooper reel.

None of the audio track is synchronized with the images, and this gives the movie less the feeling of documentary and more that of experimental cinema. In Reinert’s movie, film realism comes full circle. Its images of reality are more fantastic and unreal than the bubble gum dreams given substance by Disney, Pixar, or Carrie Prejean’s breast implants. For All Mankind is indeed non-fiction, and it was filmed entirely on location. But it has more in common with Georges Méliès’s early film fantasy A Trip to the Moon than it does with commercially successful documentary filmmaking. In space, reality becomes surreality.

Of course, the true wonder of this movie is that it was made at all. Its images were not composed for the purposes of making a documentary, not even for the purposes of political propaganda. (That purpose was served by the grainy pictures that were initially broadcast on television.) NASA gave each of the Apollo astronauts a 16mm camera for use on the ship as well as the lunar surface, and their ad hoc movies are amazing. But many of the most striking images in For All Mankind come from footage that was produced for purely utilitarian reasons. Earthbound NASA engineers wanted to see how their very expensive toy worked. The images produced by their stationary cameras — cameras without aesthetic purpose and free of human eyes and hands — are revelatory. They record the odd ballet of the machinery, the treads of the lunar rover, the spectacle of the blue Earth in orbit. They let us see shrill fires expelled from the ends of the Saturn rocket, a powerful vision of an orbital spacewalk, the eerie ridges of the moon’s surface.

At the turn of the twentieth century, film audiences sat in rapt attention to see footage of the distant Ganges or the shadowy figure of Teddy Roosevelt visiting Panama. We have something infinitely stranger in the recesses of our living rooms. The uncanny and pleasurable experience of seeing these images of space owes something to the distance that they traveled to reach us. It is not just the spectacle that is awe inducing, but the feat of their transmission. Part of the visual marvel that occurs deep in your occipital lobe actually starts out here, in the world, in simple amazement at what people have done, where they have been.

The original 16mm negatives that became this movie made a journey from outer space, to NASA freezers, to glorious re-mastered 35mm, and now, thanks to Criterion, to DVD. Really, it’s worth thinking about that chain of events for a minute. This film was captured on the moon, and now it’s in your house.

The miraculous thing is that the eye responds to that fact. When we’ve all been to the moon, For All Mankind will look very different. But right now, I keep thinking, did this really happen?

Burke Hilsabeck's work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency and the halls of the University of Chicago, where he is a graduate student. More from this author →