Al Reinert, For All Mankind, 1989, detail of a still from a color film, 79 minutes.


IN THE SPRING OF 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. It was an act of hubris: When he spoke, the country’s astronauts had logged only twenty minutes in outer space. Billions of dollars and a little more than eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong hopped off a lunar module nicknamed Eagle and pronounced the occasion “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Live television images beamed back to Earth’s surface transfixed the nation, momentarily stitching together a public torn apart by the Vietnam War, violent inner-city unrest, campus protests, and much else besides. The achievement seemed not only a victory in the country’s war-by-any-means-but-war with the Soviet Union—the USSR’s own unmanned lunar explorer crashed into the moon while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were there, asleep in their landing module—but also to augur a grand age of space exploration and scientific breakthroughs. Yet the last human to set foot on the moon’s pockmarked surface, Eugene Cernan, did so less than five years later, at the end of 1972.

The fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission offers an opportunity for reconsideration of the Apollo Program; even Aldrin has gotten into the act, publishing Magnificent Desolation, his second memoir. Criterion has contributed to the effort by releasing on DVD and Blu-Ray Al Reinert’s magnificent 1989 documentary For All Mankind. To make the film, Reinert, a journalist with no prior filmmaking experience, trolled through millions of feet of official Apollo 16-mm footage, then combined his selections with audio recordings extracted from hundreds of hours of interviews with astronauts. The lunar missions are collapsed into one epic journey, from preflight training to command-module splashdown, narrated in the southern drawls and flat midwestern accents of the men who rocketed out of Earth’s orbit.

The figures on-screen and those recounting their experiences are never properly identified, a decision that aims to emphasize the communal nature of the entire lunar enterprise. This directorial sleight of hand ensures that the focus remains on the images, which cannot be matched by the descriptions offered by those who captured them. But it also effaces the huge effort required to make the footage possible. Not only were there ten Apollo missions prior to Armstrong’s fateful step, but also hundreds of men and women who worked at the command center in Houston, and thousands more who dedicated millions of hours of labor to create, ex nihilo, the physical infrastructure necessary to get Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon’s ash-colored surface. For All Mankind, then, is hampered by its narrow focus. But what magnificent footage it presents! There is the slow-motion infernal blaze of engines propelling rockets into the air and the still uncanny sight of flashlights, slices of bread, and other everyday items floating languidly in zero gravity. There is Earth seen from a distance and rising above the moon’s horizon, an image that helped spark a nascent environmental movement; there are the astronauts themselves, snow-white Michelin men bouncing and stumbling giddily across the knobby, lifeless gray expanse.

Many people, reflecting on the dubious cold-war inspiration for NASA, or lamenting its ratio of cost to demonstrable benefit, or chastising the always malfunctioning, dangerous shuttles that arrived in Apollo’s wake, will use this anniversary to criticize the entire enterprise. Their claims are often legitimate. But the blank velvet amplitude of outer space, the backdrop for most of the film, reminds viewers of one Apollo Program legacy still to be puzzled out. The inky, airless expanse that is so palpable a presence in For All Mankind is an indication of the deep ontological shift represented by traveling so far into the unknown. Irrespective of politics or science, forty years later the mind still stutters when trying to grasp precisely what it means to have been to the moon and back.

For All Mankind is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. For more information, click here.

Brian Sholis