Criterion Reviews: ‘For All Mankind’

After the albeit-muted success of Damien Chazelle’s ‘First Man’, now seems to be an optimal time to revisit a documentary which strips the drama from humanity’s first steps on the moon. Filtering one of history’s most talked about events through a focused lens, For All Mankind leaves the conspiracy theories at the door to present 79 minutes of NASA footage and interviews – allowing its audience to partake in the simple joy of the achievement. 

Director Al Reinert bookends the film with the only outside commentary featured in the whole documentary; President John F. Kennedy’s Address on the Nation’s Space Effort. The construction is otherwise simple: voiceovers from the astronauts accompany home videos from within the Apollo spacecraft, footage from the mission control centre and film captured from the surface of the moon itself. 

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The rawness of this approach leaves ample room to concentrate on the beauty of the Moon landings, as well as an opportunity for the astronauts to express themselves. The conundrums of politics back home – the financing of such missions being a point of understandable concern – fall away as these lucky few experience what humanity has dreamed about for so long. Two astronauts giggle as they bounce around the Moon’s surface, and it is in these moments that we are reminded of the greatness of humanity. Despite all the stresses that have gotten them here, and the fact that one wrong move could cause instant death, there is an almost childlike euphoria that is easy to share in. The relative anonymity of these men – we are never introduced to them formally, only through their actions within these 80 minutes – leaves them undefined in the best way possible; they truly could be any of us, given the opportunity.

When the astronauts are stripped of their helmets, it is a sharp shock to witness how normal they are. Where other accounts have emphasised the bravery and power of individuals, For All Mankind endears its subjects to us through everyday occurrences: how do these men eat, how do they sleep, how do they entertain themselves? They are not superhuman, and the journey to the moon is a long and boring one. The seriousness of the situation lightens soon after liftoff, as the astronauts joke and mess around, occasionally to the despair of mission control. Tape recorders play a variety of music as they fool around with their new-found weightlessness. After all, who wouldn’t?

Amongst this lighthearted humour, a genuine admiration for the universe remains. The relationship between each astronaut and the slowly fading Earth feels almost private. As one man, stripped of his suit and looking smaller than ever, stares out of the window into the endless blackness, we are all made aware of our own place within something much greater, a landscape that we may never fully explore, but will always be a part of.

When Apollo 11 finally lands safely, it is not a success for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin alone. It is a success for all of humanity. For All Mankind may feature the most extraordinary shots of space, but it is the simple beauty of people that makes this documentary a masterpiece.

Criterion Reviews is a series of short 500-word reviews of films released every week by Criterion Channel until the channel officially launches on April 8th. Don’t forget to sign up for the channel and support them!

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