|Knowledge for all should never take a backseat to the
problems of the few.
This ideal kept buzzing in my head as I watched Al Reinert’s 1989 Academy Award nominated documentary, on the Apollo space missions to the moon, For All Mankind. At a crisp 79 minutes, it’s a short documentary, and in it Reinert culled over 6000 hours of film taken about all the Apollo missions from Apollo 1 through Apollo 17. But, unlike other documentaries I’ve seen on the subject of space exploration, Reinert - a newspaper man, not a film expert nor director before this, does something great - he mixes and matches footage from all the flights that made it into space, even the ill fated Apollo 13 (as well as some from the Mercury and Gemini missions). This has the effect of truly making the whole effort of reaching and exploring the moon seem one continuous thing (which it was) rather than discreet missions. The astronauts, thus, become ‘astronauts’- undifferentiated and interchangeable, which was NASA’s goal - that any of them could handle any facet of any mission.
While there is no ‘tale,’ so to speak, most of us know it, and the film really becomes a collage of images and recorded remembrances from the men who, in this age of devalued terminology, truly were heroes - i.e. - going way above and beyond the call of duty, in service for the benefit of all mankind. Yes, there’s no doubt that sans the Cold War, we would not have gone to the moon, and the evidence of this is that the last man to step foot on the moon, astronaut Gene Cernan, did so almost thirty-seven years ago, and the next will likely do so a decade or two from now; but, that only heightens the accomplishment all of the Apollo astronauts, and not just the ‘lucky’ Neil Armstrong, who got to be numero uno on the moon. Listening to the astronauts recall their moments, literally, in the sun, and especially the one sequence where an astronaut describes a moving dream he had on another world, someone like myself, born in 1965 (at the tail end of the decade or so from the mid 50s though mid-60s, when young boys were born into astronautmania) can only feel embarrassment over the squandering of such human potential and achievement while we still squabble over resources and material things. I realized, too, while watching this film, that my wife, born in the Bicentennial year of 1976, has not witnessed a man on the moon in her lifetime. To a man who grew up playing with NASA licensed toys in the early 1970s, this is truly astounding.
The images are quite good, and, in the DVD commentary of The Criterion Collection DVD, director Reinert explains, in the DVD commentary, that this is because he and his crew took the original film (not the negatives) and processed and transferred it themselves. And, when they made copies, they made the copies stand out even more than the originals. Reinert’s words are informative, but the commentary track truly belongs to his co-commentator, the aforementioned last man on the moon, astronaut Gene Cernan. Sometimes straight on, other times deep, other times poetic (but not in the pseudopoetry that so many bad commentators use), Cernan is a joy to listen to, for he expounds on Reinert’s points, and then makes points that sometimes truly elicit the images the viewer is seeing. Yet, Cernan never lards on the technospeak. The viewer is always elevated by his comments. This has to rank in the pantheon of film commentaries because, even as an audio text, it is outstanding. The rest of the DVD extra features are also first rate- astronaut Alan Bean has a feature on his moon paintings, with commentary by himself, there is extra footage of blastoffs, and a feature that lets the viewer identify the otherwise generic astronautical lumpenmenschen. Overall, this has to be one of the best Criterion releases in their catalogue, not only for the work of Reinert on the film and the excellent commentary, but also because this is, truly, a magnificent document that will only increase in value, as the years go by. Perhaps only The Up Series, by Michael Apted, and Errol Morris’s The Fog Of War, are other documentaries, along with this, that will be able to be seen in centuries and not lose any of their relevance.
Another aspect of this film, however, that lends it uniqueness, is that it is, in a sense, a pure documentary - just the images and words of those involved. It has no political nor philosophical; agenda. Too much agitprop has infected documentaries of recent years. A Certain Kind Of Death is perhaps the only recent documentary I can think of that trusts its audience to this extent. Susan Korda, the film’s editor, also deserves notice. It is truly rare that in any film (fictive or documentary) editing plays such a key role, but this is one, and it is not in the length of the particular scenes and how they are edited, but in which images and scenes are in the film, and what other ones (and words- culled from hours of astronaut interviews) they are juxtaposed with. A really great job, and not a wasted second in the film, right from the opening shot of President John F. Kennedy’s tossing down of the gauntlet in a speech at Baylor University to the final shots of the missions in flight. Brian Eno’s score is also noteworthy.
Of course, the only negative thing concerning this film is nothing of its own doing; it is the waste of decades since. Cernan, in the commentary, speaks of sometimes feeling that President Kennedy actually reached into this century, and forcefully willed NASA to the moon decades ahead of time, and I am forced to agree. The tepidity of the public to intellectual and artistic pursuits is only emphasized by witnessing folk, from not too long ago, who treated such ideas as ideals to be cherished and nourished, not dismissed. The moon landing is one of those rare instances where a single act literally changed mankind’s view of itself, yet, it did not change enough of it to fundamentally better us all. That fault is society’s, not the men and women who achieved this monumental thing. And hats off to Al Reinert for taking up a task even NASA did not feel a need doing, and doing it so well. Simply put, whether a fan of Criterion, documentaries, history, or science, this DVD is one of the few essential films to treasure and explore. If only those political hacks who fund NASA understood exploration and the value of knowledge, perhaps we’d already have had our Martian Apollos and Armstrong. One can still dream little boy dreams now and again, eh?
Copyright © by Dan Schneider
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