Criterion Review: FOR ALL MANKIND (1989)

A jaw-dropping universal reach for the stars is reverently restored in 4K UHD

With First Man, Apollo 11, and Apollo 10 1/2, the Space Race of the 1960s has been re-contextualized in a number of recent films and documentaries over the last few years. Some saw the competition as part of an ideological life-or-death struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union; others saw it as wasteful government spending, used to further the establishment’s view at the cost of social reform or addressing rampant inequalities during the concurrent Civil Rights Movement. While these perspectives are all valid, Al Reinert’s For All Mankind takes another approach far removed from the Space Race’s present, considering the Promethean and terrifying ambitions of what space travel might mean for the future of humanity as well as the impact of such expeditions on the very mortal humans who undertook these never-before-dared adventures.

Taking a Malickian “one big soul” approach to the climactic Apollo missions, For All Mankind edits the years of latter-mission spaceflights into one hybrid mission, guided by unidentified yet equally passionate interviews from the astronauts who lived through these experiences. With no differentiation or chronology between the missions or their crew, Reinert creates less of a documented history lesson and more of a rough first-person recollection of space travel. Throughout, each of these men’s memories are unified by the passion and optimism behind President Kennedy’s opening remarks—of choosing to go to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.

As such, most of the film is focused on the journey of the vast gulf of space between Earth and the Moon: the tedium that makes up traveling in space, from shift changes to news relays to cassette tapes from well-wishing favorite bands. It’s a depiction of early space travel that’s free of grade-school sensationalization, one that truly humanizes the scientists and engineers that would later live on in history books and other pop culture ephemera. When the climactic moments on the Moon finally do arrive, these breathtaking, speechless snippets are free to speak for themselves. They almost look like stop-motion sequences out of Ray Harryhausen, if the multiple other cameras from inside and outside these crafts didn’t immediately speak to their veracity.

As noted in the special features of Criterion’s presentation, the footage that makes up For All Mankind wasn’t captured with artistic ambition in mind. Multiple different ways of capturing footage were invented for the Apollo missions, but purely for scientific purposes. Regardless of their original intent, this footage is naturally cinematic. How could it not be? From shot to shot, the astronauts who captured the images that make up For All Mankind effortlessly capture the wonder and majesty of space travel, as well as the incredibly humbling experience of turning back to the small blue rock drifting through space that they and we call home. With the varying qualities of the footage presented, it almost feels like these improvements aren’t just for scientific clarity; rather, it’s as if these lucky humans were searching for a way to better depict or articulate the experience of actually being in the cosmos. It’s an exhilarating and somewhat melancholy effort, one whose results are reverently showcased throughout Reinert’s own Odyssean trawl through six million feet of NASA archival footage before editing it all down to 80 final minutes.

Video & Audio

Criterion’s release of For All Mankind includes the previous Blu-ray release, as well as a new 4K UHD cut featuring restorations of both the 1.33:1 pillarboxed presentation as well as an alternate 1.85:1 widescreen presentation. The 1.33:1 presentation is slightly window boxed in order to show as much of the original image from the 16mm NASA-sourced elements as possible.

Based on the late director’s original approved restoration for the 2009 release, Criterion created this 4K restoration in Dolby Vision HDR using an 8K scanner and a 35mm blowup of the original 16mm elements. The 5.1 channel surround tracks were created using the original 35mm magnetic tracks. The accompanying Blu-ray is the same disc as the 2009 release, and does not contain the 1.85:1 aspect ratio presentation.

Despite the fact that the 16mm/35mm print drew from multiple camera sources for its original source material, Criterion’s restoration of For All Mankind is pretty stellar in terms of uniform picture quality. Grain is quite heavy—most noticeably in a shot of Kennedy at the film’s beginning—but remains free of other camera imperfections or degradation throughout the feature. The HDR applied to the varying types of footage throughout the years of space travel mainly serves to up the quality and contrast of each shot; shadows and metal reflect deeper against the black of space. With sequences of varying frame rates, there’s no sense of artificial smoothing or ghosting; each shot flows as naturally as possible, granting viewers a sense of experimentation without alienating them from the organic flow of Reinert’s narrative of these many astronauts.

The oral histories that make up the dialogue tracks are front and center for the film’s audio presentation, with Brian Eno’s score taking up the periphery of the surround tracks. Other than some crackling in the communications between Mission Control and their charges above, dialogue remains distinctly crisp and clear, as do the surreal angelic tones of the score.

SDH subtitles are provided for the feature film only. Optional identifications are provided that note who in NASA history is onscreen or speaking, available for both SDH and non-SDH options.

Special Features

Save for the audio commentary, Criterion presents all of the following features for For All Mankind solely on the accompanying Blu-ray disc.

  • Audio Commentary by director Al Reinert and Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon, transferred over from the 2009 Blu-ray release.
  • An Accidental Gift: A 32-minute archival documentary featuring For All Mankind director Reinert’s dive into NASA’s film repository at the Johnson Space Center in order to create the final film. Topics include the methodology behind NASA’s creation of space video technology, how capturing “beautiful” images was an accidental, secondary benefit to their scientific aims, and how careful scanning of NASA scientific imagery gave birth to Reinert’s film. Featured throughout are Reinert, astronaut Alan Bean, NASA film editors Don Packard and Chuck Welch, film vault curator Morris Williams, and lead librarian Mike Gentry.
  • On Camera: 20 minutes of compiled interviews from fifteen various NASA astronauts about their experiences in space, curated by Reinert from his favorite films about the Apollo missions in addition to commemorative Apollo mission events.
  • Paintings From the Moon: Transferred over from Criterion’s initial 2009 Blu-ray release, Apollo astronaut and later Skylab 3 commander Bean introduces a series of his paintings based on his many years in the space program, all of which are accompanied by his enlightening commentary.
  • NASA Audio Highlights: 21 sound bytes from the Freedom 7, Friendship 7, Gemini IV & VII, Apollo 8–13, and Apollo 17 missions.
  • 3, 2, 1…Blast Off!: A collection of launch footage that provides examples from each of NASA’s five rocket boosters, which were the launch vehicles for the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab missions.
  • Booklet featuring archival essays by film critic Terence Rafferty and director Reinert, transferred over from the previous Blu-ray release, as well as a list of spacecraft crew from all 17 Apollo missions.

For All Mankind is now available on 4K UHD + Blu-ray combo pack courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

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