"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…” —JFK September 12, 1962
Forty years is a long time, technologically speaking. This is the immediately striking thing about For All Mankind, Al Reinert’s brilliantly simple 1989 documentary about the missions to our lunar neighbor. The film lumps millions of feet worth of film footage from 1968 to 1972 together into one seamless, ultimate Mission. No one is identified—though there are voiceovers from interviews, it’s nearly impossible to know which astronaut is speaking. That’s the point. The individuals involved aren’t really important, it’s the magnitude of the thing itself, this very big thing they’re doing for all mankind. By getting out of the way of the images (there’s a sparse score by Brian Eno), you quickly realize how amazingly, almost dauntingly un-slick space travel circa 1970 was. It was uncomfortable, not very glamorous, not at all like the movies. It was hard.
Just look at that gigantic rocket takeoff. It’s a violent act, and one that flies directly in the face of gravity and every slick summer blockbuster out there. Cut to mission control: Men in buzz cuts and IBM jackets stare into massive panels of knobs and blinking lights. The control panels are reminiscent of a Connery-era Bond villain’s, just no bikini-clad babes to be found. Cut back to the astronauts, now orbiting earth and giddily playing with a flashlight in zero gravity. Back and forth they pass the thing until mission control scolds them and they stop. Cut back to Houston: Bad haircuts, even worse computers. These are the images of the extraordinary thing that happened 40 years ago today. People came together and did something very, very hard—superhuman even—with very, very limited technology. But Reinert shows us how human we were when we did it.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the first moonwalk on July 20, For All Mankind is re-released today on a special DVD by the venerable Criterion Collection ($30; criterion.com). There are all sorts of extras like director commentary and a making of feature, but the high-definition digital transfer is the best thing about it. Really, there’s nothing like real film-footage from outer space. A million big-budget blockbusters can’t beat it.
Talking the Walk
In the Shadow of the Moon is nearly as sparse and inspiring as For All Mankind, but with a bit more on the men behind the missions. Based on interviews with ten of the Apollo astronauts, the 2007 documentary really capitalizes on the poetry and high-emotion of the former spacemen, Mike Collins in particular. Collins was the Apollo 11 command module pilot who stayed onboard the craft as it orbited the moon, ending up in its shadow and becoming (as press later noted) “the loneliest man in the universe.”