I was born in 1989, about a month after Al Reinert’s documentary For All Mankind was released. Growing up in the United States, the 1960s space race was still spoken of as a relatively recent triumph. Space shuttles were still in use. America sent its first rover to Mars when I was in elementary school. Movies — mythologizing ones, sure — like Apollo 13 chronicled the still-living men who undertook our country’s most visible scientific achievement. People still view the Apollo program with reverence, but it’s a lot longer ago in our public memory.
After all, billionaires can now enter low orbit while NASA’s money is thrown down the drain with no clear goal in mind. After the last half-decade, it seems like the sort of focused public effort to achieve something as impressive as landing a man on the moon will never come again. Maybe I’m just stuck in a rut, but what struck me about For All Mankind is how sad it feels.
That may not have been Reinert’s intent. His documentary, only 81 minutes in length, uses heretofore unseen footage taken of the Apollo space program, much of which had been shot by the astronauts on their missions. Musician Brian Eno delivers an atmospheric score, and the film is largely free of exposition. Instead, Reinert includes unattributed interviews from astronauts as his narration. The result is a documentary that focuses far more on how it felt to travel to the moon and back than the know-how that made it possible. It honors the men and women on the ground, but it isn’t particularly interested in them.
Criterion’s new 4K UHD edition, which follows the label’s first crack at the film 20 years ago, is the best looking and sounding the film can possibly be, even compared with the Blu-ray. The 4K UHD disc restores the original 1.33:1 framing as an option (the 1.85:1 theatrical is also available). Both the 4K and Blu-ray discs include 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks. For the purposes of review, I watched the film on a 55” Samsung LCD with a pair of Phillips Surround Sound headphones.
The experience was, frankly, overwhelming. Again, I don’t think it was entirely Reinert’s intent to produce a sad movie. The men he interviews emphasize their incredible mission to space, and none seems particularly maudlin about having been among the few to walk its surface. They certainly mention the loneliness of floating through space, of seeing Earth shrouded in the unimaginable darkness of the universe. Watching it down here, though, amid the pointless tumult of our wasted 21st-century potential, it all feels like we didn’t learn anything and all … and maybe we won’t learn anything still.
Anyway, this new Criterion edition is pretty slick. Along with the film, it comes packed with the level of special features the label is known for, including an audio commentary from Reinert and Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan, the last person to actually walk on the moon. A short documentary is also included, titled An Accidental Gift: The Making of For All Mankind. Additional interview excerpts and footage compilations are also on the disc. The booklet includes essays by Terrence Rafferty and Reinert, which are both really useful for someone coming into the film cold.