I should begin by telling you I have never purchased a documentary and I have yet to see a documentary I would say is worth buying. I don’t say this because I don’t like documentaries. As a matter of fact, to go along with the opening statement I would say there is hardly a documentary I have ever seen I didn’t think was excellent. Of course, not being a movie watcher that seeks out documentaries I don’t see that many and only make sure to watch the good ones, which should give you a good idea of what I think of Criterion’s Blu-ray release of For All Mankind.
Originally released in 1989, For All Mankind is directed by Al Reinert and perhaps to say it was directed may be a bit misleading. Reinert, in fact, was given access to over 6 million feet of film the NASA astronauts shot during the Apollo space missions and when all was said and done he edited it all down to a brief 80 minutes. Before you even watch a second of the film you have to respect the mere accomplishment of putting it together. Then, once you see it, there is very little left to say but, “Wow.”
The idea of combining footage from 12 Apollo missions, and even including a moment of concern on board Apollo 13, and making it all one fluid story is a major task, but Reinert’s dedication to the Apollo program and his intentions combine to tell an extraordinary story. The footage is uplifting, awe inspiring and on Criterion Blu-ray a complete marvel all while the included supplementary material shed plenty of light on the process of putting the film together and then some.
The film is presented without names attached and you are never specifically told which mission you are watching or whom is speaking. Paying close attention will occasionally clue you in and there are a couple of moments where the mission is displayed, but other than that you are flying blind with landing on the surface of the moon as your only concern. It’s a genius move, and a unique presentation that, in a way, turns this into more than a documentary and may be a reason many will look at For All Mankind as a film that exceeds its documentary status. However, for those of you curious as to who you are watching on screen, Criterion does offer a special feature in which you can activate onscreen identification of the astronauts and the people working in mission control.
Digging further into the features, the best is undoubtedly the audio commentary with Reinert and Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon. The two discuss anything and everything you could possibly think of and Reinert is surprisingly open concerning some of the shots which includes noting the fact there is one faked shot in the movie as well as a couple of other shots that don’t necessarily represent what we are led to believe they are. Cernan’s contributions to the conversation are incredibly informative and personal and in commenting on how all 12 missions are presented as one, Cernan says, “When you look at the Apollo program we were all hitched to the same wagon.”
There is a new 32-minute documentary on the making of the film called “An Accidental Gift: The Making of For All Mankind” that does include a couple of good nuggets of information, but for the most part a lot of it repeats what is heard in the commentary making it feel a bit redundant. However, the 20-minute feature called “On Camera” presenting a collection of on-screen interviews with 15 of the Apollo astronauts is much better and rarely repeats information heard in the commentary or on the “An Accidental Gift” documentary.
Next is a video program made up of Apollo 17 astronaut Alan Bean’s artwork. The feature runs 37 minutes and includes 24 pieces of Bean’s art along with a commentary track. You can navigate through the images via a thumbnail index in one of the more impressive gallery options I have seen on a home video as they traditionally include the photos alone causing the viewer to constantly push a button on their remote. This presentation is actually engaging and interesting, something I typically don’t say about a gallery feature, most of which I tend to avoid entirely.
Finally we have 21 NASA audio highlights and liftoff footage totaling just over nine-minutes and a booklet with essays by film critic Terrence Rafferty and Reinert.
Criterion’s release marks the 20th anniversary of the film and the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landmark accomplishment, and if you are a documentary fan and one that watches them more than once, pick this one up by all means. However, if you are like me, and find yourself interested in good documentaries, but don’t necessarily have any desire to watch them more than once, add this one to your Netflix queue. On Blu-ray the images look fantastic and this is footage you are not likely to see anywhere else and possibly never again. I wasn’t even born when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, but I had seen footage, heard the words and been told the stories. However, seeing it in Reinert’s 80-minute documentary makes the experience brief, but at the same time extraordinarily epic. Give it a shot, you won’t be disappointed.