Criterion Corner: For All Mankind (#54)

Earlier this year, we saw Summer of Soul, Questlove’s documentary/concert film hybrid about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. In its last third, the film juxtaposes the festival, an event by and for the African America community that at the time (and not just then) was sorely disadvantaged and underserved, and the first moon landing, where NASA put Whitey on the Moon. Why are millions spent on space exploration when the planet we live on is severely lacking in so many respects?

For All Mankind, the 1989 documentary by Al Reinert, can come across as an oddly apolitical film when seen more than thirty years after its release. It doesn’t address the political and social upheavals of the time. It unwittingly highlights what a white, conservative endeavour the moon landing was, in the way the astronauts talk (the voiceover consists entirely of parts of interviews Reinert conducted with the members of the various Apollo crews), in the music they choose to take along, in the names and clothes and hairstyles. Similarly, the grand rhetoric of Kennedy’s speech – you know the one -, no matter how effective, and the official language of speeches and plaques highlight that the space programme was largely a boys’ club. (It is mankind, after all, not humanity.) Diversity was not only not a priority at the time of the Apolo programme, it seems it was barely a part of NASA’s vocabulary. Never mind the African American and/or female minds that worked on the programme: these are at work off-screen, and therefore they may as well not exist.

In that sense, For All Mankind is limited in its view of the Apollo programme and its endeavour to bring humanity to a different celestial body than the one we’re all born on. It is incomplete, and its mission is not to highlight the gaps in the story it is telling. Nonetheless, the film does succeed at being a beautiful, unique take on that endeavour, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since. What makes it resonate especially is that it is entirely uninterested in heroics, drama or the flag-waving that was certainly a part of NASA’s mission during the Cold War. This isn’t about a few good men, it isn’t about the red, white and blue. It is also not interested in the kind of pathos that the movies, from The Right Stuff via Apollo 13 to First Man, have delivered.

Instead, what For All Mankind often feels like is a home movie, albeit one scored by Brian Eno. It is oddly low-key and at times even goofy, which is not what we’re used to, whether in other documentaries or in fictional takes on spacefaring. Reinert juxtaposes wonder with normalcy, he goes from shots that could be out of NASA’s promotional material – bodies in space catching the sun just so – to others that drop all the mystique and grandeur: astronauts grinning goofily as they play with their food in zero gravity, men in space suits skipping along like giddy schoolchildren. The journey they’re on is a breathtaking one, but they’re there as stand-ins for all of us. Films about mankind’s achievements are often patriotic, they come with an implicit Aaron Copland soundtrack, but For All Mankind has no interest in that sort of pathos. Its focus lies in the individual experiences of the astronauts, but it doesn’t even care much whether a statement is by Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin or one of the ones who were third, fifth, or tenth to step onto the moon, the men whose names we wouldn’t recognise if we heard them. In Reinert’s film, it is humanity that went to the moon, not a bunch of all-American heroes.

For All Mankind sees the events it depicts as a collective experience and a collective achievement. It has no interest in imposing an edifying narrative arc on what it shows us, no individual stories of accomplishment or bravery. For Reinert, it is irrelevant that Apollo was an American programme or that the US beat the Soviets in this part of the space race: what matters is that humanity wanted to do this and that we did it, that we as a collective are capable of magnificence – and that this is in no way diminished when we laugh at the awkwardness of going to the toilet in zero-G or the joy of astronauts bunnyhopping on the lunar surface.

It is the frequent simplicity of these impressions, the insistence that we are not watching a Hollywood movie with an inspirational character arc or a propaganda reel that gives For All Mankind its power. This is one of Criterion’s 4K releases, but the footage largely has the grainy, slightly jittery, homespun immediacy of Super 8 reels. It has a tactility exactly because the footage is often mundane, sometimes even amateurish. There is a nostalgia to the film, though it isn’t the nostalgia of a Spielberg film or, worse, a toxic longing for a supposedly better, simpler past (when men were real men, women were off-screen and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were critters in B-movies). For All Mankind evokes a longing for a past and its achievements stripped of pathos. We did this once. If only we put our minds to it, we could do it again – and much more. We could go to the Moon, and do the other things. That we choose not to do any of them may be our greatest failure.

Verdict: As you may have noticed, I liked For All Mankind a lot. It is a film that is inspirational without having the motivational-poster sheen that often serves as ‘inspirational’ in culture. It has a simplicity that is downright radical – imagine the kind of film that Aaron Sorkin might write about the Apollo programme, and then imagine the exact opposite of that film. While For All Mankind‘s apparently apolitical stance may strike some as naive or disingenuous, I prefer to look at what it sets out to be and what it succeeds at, rather than at what it isn’t – though I think that some will not be receptive for what For All Mankind is trying to communicate because of the gaps it leaves in the narrative, which is fair enough. If you have any interest in space exploration, and if, like me, you were the kind of kid who had books about the Apollo programme and posters about the solar system hanging on your wall, but you prefer your astronauts without an overly generous helping of inspirational brass and patriotism, For All Mankind is a beautiful if incomplete reminder of what it is we are looking for when we look at the latest NASA glory shots: a vision of humanity that looks up at the night sky with curiosity.

P.S.: Listening to Brian Eno’s ethereal soundtrack, I found myself certain that his piece “An Ending (Ascent)”, which plays repeatedly in For All Mankind, had been used either in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic or Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Turns out it was both. I guess For All Mankind, or at least Eno’s work on it, proved inspirational to more than one filmmaker.

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