Tuesday, September 25, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: FOR ALL MANKIND (1989)

Directed by Al Reinert

Music by Brian Eno

Edited by Susan Korda

Produced by Betsy Broyles Breier, Al Reinert, Ben Young Mason, Fred Miller


For All Mankind is a cinematic blend of all the different facets of the Apollo Program which put the first human beings on the moon. It isn't about any one Apollo odyssey, nor does it focus on indivdual astronauts, scientists, or ground control operators. Rather it is a synthesis in sound and images of what the Apollo Program means to the human species as a whole. Or maybe I should say it's what the filmmakers think the Apollo Program means to humankind as a whole, although I found it pretty convincing as well. I wanted to believe the grand mythology that director Al Reinert had crafted out of hours of footage shot on board the spacecraft by the astronauts themselves and the soundtrack rendered from a blend of Brian Eno's subtle musical score and  one-on-one audio interviews with various astronauts from different Apollo missions. Visually, the movie appears to track one roundtrip journey to the moon and back, but this journey is pieced together out of elements of various Apollo missions, including some perilous moments from the abortive but heroic Apollo 13 mission (Hollywood director Ron Howard's megahit Apollo 13 does a pretty good job of dramatizing that mission). The result is a kind of Ultimate Apollo Mission where any obstacle or malfunction can be overcome by the combined talents of astronauts and ground control operators working in near-mystical synchronization.

So For All Mankind isn't exactly an objective portrayal of the Apollo Program as a whole, nor does it depict any one mission in any great chronological and/or technical detail. It doesn't ask any hard policy questions about why America should've spent so much money on the project, or its value as a propaganda weapon against our grand Cold War nemesis the Soviet Union. The movie is more of an essay about the spirit of the Apollo Program, the dream, the myth. The filmmakers, led by director Reinert, want to convince you of the deeper, possibly even spiritual, value of humanity's journey into space. When I say spiritual, I don't mean to suggest that the movie is advocating any sort of religion or body of spiritual practice or some kind of a New Age thing, but rather the notion that people, as indivdiuals, families, societies, nations, can put themselves in the service of some larger principle and derive a benefit from that service. It's a vision of collective action that would no doubt be shouted down as "Socialism" by many Americans in elected office today. But then again, about half, maybe more, of our elected officials do not believe in evolution or birth control or free speech or reason or logic so we don't have to pay attention to those people.

Or maybe we do.

Reinert begins with President John F. Kennedy's famous speech laying down the challenge of getting to the moon within the decade, and the discovery of new rights, new frontiers, new vistas, for all humankind. JFK offers up the space program, and the quest to land on the moon by the end of the 1960s, as a kind of national program of self-improvement, a dream to strive for that will shake Americans up, get them to aim high. I am not usually moved by the words of politicians, and JFK lived and died before I was ever conceived, but I found myself wanting to believe the words. Hard to believe that this is the same man who was pretty eager to rain fire on Vietnam (along with Eisenhower, LBJ, Nixon, Kissinger, McNamara, Westmoreland, the Democrats, the Republicans, and many others, so, no, I'm not just picking on JFK here). JFK, from what I've seen of him, had a way with words, strong symmetrical facial features, and his speech seems to conflate humanity's adventure into space with the struggle for universal human rights as embodied at the time by the African-American struggle for Civil Rights. It's a noble vision later picked up on by Star Trek in its various incarnations: all of the cultural and ethnic flavors of humanity united as one Federation in the pursuit of a more perfect intergalactic union--a worthy dream that humanity is still struggling to attain.

The movie goes from Kennedy's speech directly into the preparations for launch: spacesuit diagnostics, checklists, tense men chain smoking and guzzling coffee in the control room, then blast off--and we are well into the journey. The words of politicians cannot compare with the experiential majesty of riding a rocket to the moon, floating in space while tethered to a vehicle moving at 25,000 mph, skipping along like children on the barren surface of the moon--and I think that's what gives For All Mankind it's peculiar power, for all of its surface myth-making. That raw experience that transforms humans who dare to leave the Earth. And how these first adventurers open up possibilities for all who would follow. It's also that raw experience which imbues the astronauts, and this movie, with that spirit I've already spoken of: one's life, mind, and  perspective on the Earth and the universe are all transformed once you see the homeworld hanging in the sublime dark of outer space.

Each stage of a trip from the Earth to the moon is depicted, with a great deal of humor and humanity, which caught me off guard. I expected it to be more of a technical exposition, but director Reinert takes the material in a poetic direction, and also brings in a lot of warmth and humor by his choice of footage: astronauts bouncing around their spaceship listening to Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Frank Sinatra; the ecstasy of the aforementioned tethered space walk; the childlike skipping and hopping of astronauts bouncing around the moon; and joyriding about the magnificent wastes in the lunar rover. I was left with the impression from both the film that the astronauts shot while out in space, and from the interview voice overs that these guys really loved what they were doing. A lot of times, I think astronauts come off as squares, as people so heavily trained and indoctrinated in the technical aspects of space flight (and it is enormously technical), and the individual personas of astronauts are so stage managed by NASA and other space agencies, that they end up unintentionally making the whole adventure of humanity into space seem dull, routine, just another job--maybe even the ultimate exercise in conformity conditioning. But the truth is that these guys have to be rigorously trained to get it right, to survive in the pitiless void of space. And in America at the time of the Apollo Program any taxpayer funded venture has to present a conservative, straight-laced front to get the money it needs. Deep down these astronauts have a lot of passion, and a lot of balls, then and now, and I've always secretly admired the men and women, from space programs all over the world, who have a desire to travel into space. Yes, I admire these people, even though I am also certain I would not get along with many of them, personally, especially the old guys still around from the Apollo Program. But that's all right. We don't have to get along, or know each other personally, just as long as people keep going into space.

The dream of the Apollo Program, JFK's noble speech--were such things ever really said or done in America? Watching this movie, reflecting on what I've read in history books, and thinking about the small stretch of American history I've observed during my relatively brief adulthood I found myself disbelieving what I was seeing and hearing. This movie struck me as much of a piece of science fiction as a Lensman novel or something by Heinlein, Asimov, or Clarke. I can't imagine America today, with its partisan gridlock, rampant anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism, and contempt for true community and collective endeavor ever attaining the stars. But maybe it's not fair to just trash America, in this respect. Factions and wars and bigotries and  fatal bitterness of all kinds engulf many parts of the world as we speak. I've said it before, I'll say it again: I'm a pessimist. I do not believe humanity has the right stuff. I do not think we'll make it to the stars. But watching this movie made me want to believe.

 For All Mankind, I repeat, is an exercise in mythmaking that borders on propaganda. But it's not propaganda for some self-serving political faction, or an ambitious individual, or any one nation state, or even necessarily for the Apollo Program astronauts or NASA itself. It is propaganda in service to a dream of infinite adventure and enlightenment for the human species.

Watch For All Mankind, for free, on Hulu:


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