20 July 2009

'For All Mankind' : Remembering the Apollo Astronauts' Epic Derring-Do

Al Reinert's stunning 'For All Mankind' screens tonight as we observe the 40th Anniversary of man's greatest adventure
By Thorne Dreyer / The Rag Blog / July 20, 2009
See 'Tumbling Models: Some of "The Right Stuff,"' by Thomas Cleaver, and more about 'For All Mankind,' Below.
On July 20, 1969, exactly forty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounded from Apollo 11's lunar module onto the face of the moon, capturing the imagination of the world.

On May 25, 1961, JFK had proclaimed to a joint session of Congress that "this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth," startling those who would be expected to make this, the stuff of sci fi novels, actually happen.

But they came through in, shall we say, flying colors. Twenty four men in spacesuits would circle the moon and twelve would actually walk on its surface in an unprecedented act of cosmic derring-do -- while consumating with a weightless flourish what many consider to be man's greatest technological triumph.

Al Reinert's 1989 classic film For All Mankind, a splendid documentary about the Apollo flights to the moon in the 60's and 70's, is showing tonight (Monday, July 20, 2009) on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) at 7:00 p.m. central time (check your local listings) -- as we all observe the 40th anniversary of a singular event in our history: mankind's first steps on the surface of the moon.

For All Mankind will be followed tonight on TCM by Philip Kauffman's The Right Stuff, the theatrical movie about the Mercury 7 astronauts based on the Tom Wolfe novel. (See Thomas Cleaver's remarks below.)

Reinert was (is!) my friend and colleague and I was involved peripherally (and at times not so peripherally) with the years-long development and production of For All Mankind. And the process was as impressive as the final product.

A screenwriter now living in southern California, Reinert is a Texas native who formerly worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a senior editor at Texas Monthly and as a widely-published freelance magazine writer.

For All Mankind was constructed from actual NASA footage -- some of the most amazing documentary photography ever taken -- combined with Reinert's interviews with the Apollo astronauts. The photography, culled from a massive inventory of raw 8mm and 16mm footage -- was chronologically reorganized to better tell this epic story.

The sum total was far greater than the parts, transformed by Al Reinert's artistic vision (and ungodly perseverance and attention to detail), with a great assist from Brian Eno's unearthly musical score.

Some of this utilization of NASA photography was pioneered by filmmaker William Michael Hanks in his documentary, The Apollo File, with which Reinert was originally involved.

For All Mankind was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1990, losing out to Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, a film produced during the height of the AIDS epidemic which became a sentimental favorite among Hollywood insiders.

Reinert's film was recently re-released in hi-def Blu-Ray and premiered before a packed and enthusiastic crowd at the Paramount in Austin during the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) music and film festival. A new Special Edition DVD has been released by Criterion and is available from Amazon.com.

Image from Philip Kaufman's 'The Right Stuff.'
Tumbling Models:
Some of 'The Right Stuff'

By Thomas Cleaver / The Rag Blog / July 20, 2009

TCM's showing of For All Mankind tonight, Monday, July 20, in widescreen letterbox, is being followed by a presentation of The Right Stuff. Check your local schedule for times.

The Right Stuff is not as good as it could have been (due to the fact that Phil Kaufman -- the director -- didn't think the Mercury astronauts had "the right stuff"), but it still has its moments, and I always like that the X-1 and X-1A sequences were done the old-fashioned way, with models hanging on wires in a park in San Francisco, shot against the real sky, with CO2 being sprayed by a production assistant to create the "clouds."

Also, the "hypersonic tumble" came when the FX supervisor was so frustrated that they couldn't get it done with motion-capture that he threw the model out the fourth story window of the warehouse where the production offices were. Someone else saw that and said "Brian! It tumbled!" after which they spent three days throwing X-1As off the roof and filming them as they fell. The tumbling F-104 sequence is a series of old Hawk/Testors F104s hanging from balloons, with the film then run in reverse after they were shot rising.

The famous shot of the astronauts walking toward the camera in their space suits came when Phil Kaufman saw all the illegal immigrants who worked in the sweat shop down the hall coming out at the end of shift -- so the astronauts are really walking out of a sweatshop in a warehouse in San Francisco.

(Memories from my first experience of working on a "big movie," where my job was driving Chuck Yeager around and writing press releases for the Unit Publicist).
For All Mankind : 'Visually Stunning'
There is no narrator spouting scientific facts or high tech jargon. Instead, Reinert blends together comments by thirteen of the original astronauts (others are glimpsed and heard in archival footage but no one is identified), sound effects and an appropriately eerie music score by Brian Eno.
There have been numerous books, films and documentaries on NASA's Apollo space program from the bestseller Apollo: The Epic Journey to the Moon by David Reynolds, Wally Schirra & Von Hardesty to Ron Howard's 1995 recreation of the Apollo 13 mission to HBO's documentary mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (1998), but For All Mankind (1989) is easily the most visually stunning and unconventional approach to documenting the nine Apollo missions that occurred between 1968 and 1972.

Instead of taking a chronological approach, complete with talking head interviews in the style of most documentaries, filmmaker Al Reinert painstakingly reviewed six million feet of archival footage from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's holdings along with 80 hours of original interviews he had conducted and fashioned a hypnotic visual and aural experience as seen through the eyes of the astronauts.

There is no narrator spouting scientific facts or high tech jargon. Instead, Reinert blends together comments by thirteen of the original astronauts (others are glimpsed and heard in archival footage but no one is identified), sound effects and an appropriately eerie music score by Brian Eno.

The result is closer to an experimental film but one that is unmistakably a tribute to America's foray into the international space race to the moon that was first set in motion by President John F. Kennedy's September 12th speech in 1962; he vowed that the U.S. would land a spacecraft on the moon and that "it will be done before the end of this decade." NASA accepted the challenge and it became a reality.

The Apollo space program was enormously costly -- an estimation of several billion dollars would not be unlikely -- and extensively documented in terms of the cameras that each mission was equipped with for photographing every aspect of the journey. As a result, For All Mankind could be considered the most expensive movie ever made when you consider what it cost to produce all the footage that NASA ultimately acquired.

Reinert recalled, "I began interviewing the Apollo astronauts in 1976. They were mostly retired astronauts by then, changed men, excerpts from the tapes constitute the major part of the soundtrack of For All Mankind. The movie thus speaks with the intimate voice of personal experience."

He added that "The astronauts went into space carrying movie cameras '16mm data-acquisition cameras' \which they reached for reflexively, like tourists, whenever they saw something surprising or spectacular or merely important. They saw such things almost continually. As a result, they brought back thousands of feet of amazing film, perhaps the most extraordinary footage ever shot by human beings."

-- from the Criterion Collection DVD liner notes for For All Mankind.

For All Mankind:

Oscar-nominated documentary is a bold meditation on discovery, courage and perseverance

By Randy Miller III / July 14, 2009

As a bold meditation on discovery, courage and perseverance, Al Reinert's For All Mankind (1989) truly stands in a class by itself.

This Oscar-nominated documentary chronicles the Apollo space missions of the 1960s and 1970s from a decidedly different perspective: the human one. Replayed reels of grainy stock footage have trained us to assume that the historic 1969 moon landing was distant, desolate and almost difficult to believe -- but within this warm atmosphere, it feels as perfectly natural as a home movie.

Though relatively short at only 80 minutes, For All Mankind was assembled from an enormous surplus of 8mm and 16mm footage held in NASA's archives for nearly two decades. This footage was routinely recorded for posterity, yet the majority of it had yet to be seen by the general public.

For All Mankind's subtle flow tricks us into thinking we're only watching one mission, but its deception shows us the big picture instead: this odyssey was about more than one moment, one journey or one crew; it was about the dedication of all involved, not to mention the overwhelming scope of the space program in general. Such a "discovery," for lack of a better term, helped to define an entire generation -- and like it or not, the accomplishment has yet to be equaled, let alone bettered.

In more ways than one, this broad assortment of material (carefully pieced together by Reinert, with the help of NASA film editors Don Pickard and Chuck Welch) is presented in its most affecting and appropriate form: as a loose but focused narrative, with an abstract beginning and end. Many smaller beginnings and endings were undoubtedly left on the cutting room floor, but it's all for the best; For All Mankind wouldn't be half as effective if it were approached in a less artistic manner.

Told in the words of several Apollo astronauts (including James Lovell, Jack Swigert, Ken Mattingly, Michael Collins and others), For All Mankind relies on monologue almost as much as visuals. Much of the audio we hear was recorded right on location -- and while it's potent enough in its own right, the retrospective comments are even more effective.

These astronauts' enthusiasm is only matched by their humility: they were certainly excited to be part of history, but their respect for the danger involved helped to keep them in check. We can't blame them, however, for skipping happily across the lunar surface or goofing off in zero gravity; after all, it's not like we wouldn't do the same thing. For All Mankind is a sincere and reverent experience, to be sure, but the film's infectious joy is one of its greatest strengths.

Brian Eno's score remains another highlight, whether it blends into the background or boldly steps forward. It's paired perfectly with the film's abstract flow and editing style, creating a natural but dreamlike atmosphere that works wonderfully. Still, the footage itself is the most effective element: the humbling nature of these visuals, especially with the realization that they're 100% genuine, really puts things in perspective. Modern documentaries like Planet Earth have given us a greater understanding of the world around us, but the striking simplicity of a desolate lunar landscape is something else entirely.

For All Mankind may be light from a technical perspective, but that's not the film's intent: this is more of a spiritual experience than a science lesson. Those looking for a more detailed, analytical rundown of the Apollo missions have plenty of other options to choose from -- but for everyone else, For All Mankind remains a definitive document of our first trip to the moon and back.

Originally presented on DVD by Criterion in 2000, For All Mankind wasn't the company's most practical release, especially taking its $40 price tag into account: not only were the film's grainy visuals a tough sell for videophiles, but the short running time and light amount of extras didn't help matters either. Nine years later, they've attempted to create a more attractive package. Boasting a newly-minted transfer, a pair of new featurettes and a lower price tag, this new reissue of For All Mankind is the clear winner from a new buyer's perspective...

[Read the rest of this review, including technical details and info about features on the new DVD release at DVDTalk.com.
The Rag Blog

Only a few posts now show on a page, due to Blogger pagination changes beyond our control.

Please click on 'Older Posts' to continue reading The Rag Blog.