The acclaimed documentary For All Mankind has a subject so vast and alluring — the nine Apollo flights to the moon — that you may feel there’s something wrong with you if you’re not deeply moved by it. The director, Al Reinert, had access to thousands of hours of heretofore unseen footage of the American moon missions. It seems the boys at NASA recorded every detail of the flights on film and video, and from a dozen camera angles: the apocalyptic lift-offs, the astronauts’ gravity-free high jinks aboard the command module, their childlike eagerness as they prance around the pockmarked lunar surface, collecting rocks and reveling in the eerie, luminescent tranquillity.
Instead of presenting the nine flights in chronological order, Reinert opted for a more ambitious, impressionistic approach: He merged them into one seamless, representative flight. None of the 24 astronauts is ever identified, and since they all have the same sort of 35-ish, clean-cut-Joe looks, the effect is that of watching a single generic moon voyage with three or four generic astronauts.
On its own terms, For All Mankind is beautifully made. You can certainly understand the philosophy behind Reinert’s approach. He’s saying, implicitly, that each of the Apollo astronauts was simply a representative Everyman — that any single human personality pales in significance next to the religioso spectacle of mankind plunging into the cosmos. I doubt anyone would seriously disagree with him.
So why does the movie feel less wondrous than it might have? In part because the image of man in space has, in just one generation, become routine, an established part of our imaginative vocabulary. We’ve seen this stuff so often on television that it’s no longer revelatory. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing again, of course, and on a big screen. But the approach For All Mankind takes is so abstract it ends up distancing the audience. By robbing the astronauts of individuality, the film mythologizes space travel instead of deepening our intuitions about it.
None of the astronauts’ commentary is especially memorable, and so you may be tempted to think they’re just good ol’ boys who lack verbal eloquence. But their remarks might have been more evocative had they been asked to contribute something other than blow-by-blow accounts of the voyages. I kept wondering how visiting the moon had changed them long after they returned to Earth. Did they have dreams, nightmares? Did they become more religious? We have no idea. The movie’s consciousness doesn’t extend beyond the existential details of the flights.
For All Mankind certainly succeeds at evoking the ironically serene aesthetics of space travel. What it never quite captures is the accompanying human drama. In all likelihood, the film will be shown in classrooms for years to come, but it’s just possible kids will watch it and wonder what all the fuss was about. B