In nine Apollo missions between 1968 and 1972, America sent 24 different men to the moon; 12 walked on it — a pretty exclusive club. Meanwhile, back at home, earthlings flocked to their televisions to watch. In 1989, Al Reinert — a regular around the Houston Space Center, and later a writer on the film “Apollo 13” and the TV series “From the Earth to the Moon” — released a euphoric documentary compiled entirely of the film footage shot by the astronauts in the spacecraft, on the moon and of the NASA men who stayed earthbound. Now re-released by the Criterion Collection, the new DVD version of “For All Mankind” is far superior to the original grainy images most watched for the first time on their TVs. Told in the words and images of all the astronauts who have ever made the journey, the film makes a strong case for why we as a nation and why the astronauts as individuals were never the same again.
True to its title, “For All Mankind” delivers an intimate, but — with all of the astronauts’ faces hidden in space suits — somewhat impersonal (and therefore universal) look at the Apollo missions. Choosing to weave a narrative without traditional voice-over narration or helpful onscreen titles, Reinert never identifies any of the men on the mission, and so the audience is left to gaze, electrified, at breathtaking images many of us have never seen.
If you’ve always thought of the space race as serious, buttoned-up business, a sober Cold War competition, then this may be the film to change that perception. We get to watch astronauts eating their space hot dogs; spin their gravity-less Walkmen around and around blasting country music; and explain the mysteries of using the lavatory in space. They do somersaults, tumble and laugh, and only occasionally do we glimpse the real danger of their precarious place and mission (“Houston, we have a problem”.) But most impressive are their expressions of unfettered glee at being on the moon. In one scene, Brian Eno’s heavenly soundtrack alights on an anonymous astronaut attached by a copper umbilical cord to his spacecraft, dangling in pitch-black space as the earth glows behind him.
But it is the finale that proves the power of Reinert’s film. Juxtaposed against the iconic (and now almost anesthetized) planting of the American flag, we watch as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin run, bounce and even fall all over the moon, laughing the entire time. “You lose sight of the fact that it’s a vacuum out there and if you spring a leak in that suit, you gonna be dead,” an unnamed astronaut opines. And then, in one of the most unabashedly playful sequences ever captured on film, they celebrate their amazing moment with wild yelps and Bugs Bunny impersonations. (And really, what’s more American than that?)
“The moon seems friendlier now than it did 40 years ago,” director Reinert wrote in an essay for the Criterion release. “I think it’s because we sent music and laughter there.”
For Monday’s 40th anniversary of the landing on the moon, the NewsHour spoke with Reinert about his mission to bring these other-worldly images to all humankind.