Wednesday, March 12, 2008

For All Mankind

For All Mankind (1989) is perhaps the best documentary made so far about the U. S. expeditions to the moon. It is not especially long, only eighty minutes. Instead of focusing on technical details, the development of the mission, the scientific aspects of the moon flights, it focuses instead on impressions—visual and aural impressions, the thoughts and reactions of the men involved. Most of the footage is taken from official NASA archival films. There is no narration. There are no recreated scenes. Instead the participants in the mission talk for themselves. The documentary covers everything from the minutes immediately before the first launch to the moon landing itself and then to the ascent from the moon and the rendezvous and docking with the command module orbiting the moon. We see just a brief glimpse of a command module parachuting through the atmosphere and landing safely in the ocean.

For all Mankind is a simple and straightforward visual narrative. Without overtly making clear that it is doing so, it takes the eight lunar missions, including two lunar orbital flights that did not involve landings, and combines them into one narrative, so that the story of the lunar expeditions is told from the perspectives of all the men involved.

The film tells its story with awe and even reverence. It treats the moon flights as the landmark events they were, epical extensions of the human presence from beyond the sphere of the earth to another world. The soundtrack by Brian Eno for the most part contributes effectively to this purpose, though occasionally it becomes a bit unfocused.

This film would benefit from a wide-screen, high-definition treatment. My only major complaint is that there is not enough footage of men walking on the moon's surface, riding around in the moon buggy, talking about what they are doing. Sometimes the comments of the astronauts are too prosaic and mundane—they make jokes, sing, drive golf balls (Alan Shepherd), jump up and down, run, pick up rocks. If it were not for the occasional comments they make that show their awareness of the transcendent significance of the event, you would think they did not understand. But they clearly did.

Forty years after the first lunar landing, the image of the blue-green earth floating in the void still astounds.

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