Filmed on Location

For All Mankind (1989)

Image: Janus Films

Director Al Reinert’s documentary For All Mankind (1989) is woven together almost entirely1 from footage filmed during the NASA Apollo program, which lasted from 1961 to 1972. Narratively, the film focuses on the nine manned missions to the moon—Apollos 8 and 10 orbited the moon; Apollos 11, 12, and 14-17 landed on its surface; Apollo 13 famously aborted its landing and looped around the moon instead. The footage (selected by Reinert and editor Susan Korda from millions of feet of NASA archival film) roves from Mission Control in Houston to the inside of the command modules to the inky depths of space and the barren lunar surface. The film’s soundscape is fashioned from a perpetual overlapping of music—Brian Eno’s eerie, synthy, ambient score—and audio interviews with thirteen Apollo astronauts. 

While the credits list names and missions, Reinert forgoes putting any descriptive text onscreen  during the documentary itself.2 Audio and video are spliced together based on tone (pensive, playful, grateful, eerie) and the part of the journey they depict (launching, looking back at the Earth, skipping along the lunar surface). They merge into each other with little means of  identification or distinction. An Apollo 8 astronaut may speak wistfully over footage filmed by  Apollo 17’s crew, even though they went to space in entirely different decades. A Saturn V rocket launch shown from five different angles may actually be five launches of five different rockets. Nine different journeys undertaken by 24 different men coalesce into one cohesive voyage to the moon, all these varied experiences occurring along one same path. 

The result is a poetic, meditative, kaleidoscopic narrative of the greatest journey mankind has  ever made. It’s also a highly mediated interpretation of historical events, more memory play  than documentary. This is not to say that For All Mankind is inaccurate or incomplete. Rather, it favors feeling over fact, impression over information. We know what happened, the film assumes, but what did it feel like? And what does it mean to experience it 20 or 55 years later, as viewers with feet planted firmly on the earth? 

Often throughout the documentary, the Earth and Moon are seen through a spacecraft window, and the astronauts and their lunar modules are shown in grainy black and white on a screen in Mission Control. These frames within frames exemplify the act of mediated looking inherent in our own limited experience of lunar exploration. Speaking over footage of a spacewalk, astronaut Russell Schweickart discusses the experience of floating freely with no windowpane or camera lens between him and the vast expanse of space. “There are no boundaries to what you’re seeing,” he says. “[It] gives you unlimited visibility.” But for the rest of us, to see outer space (beyond what’s visible in a telescope) requires being beholden to the delineating frame of a camera.

Our only perception of extraterrestrial reality comes from boundaried images that have passed  through layers of construction—shot, selected, edited, (sometimes) colorized, juxtaposed with  other images—arriving before our eyes in dialogue (conscious or otherwise) with the personal  and sociocultural context of their time and ours. For most humans, Neil Armstrong’s first steps  are inseparable in our memories from the frame of a TV set and the historic chyron: “Live from the surface of the moon.” Or take the iconic Earthrise, photographed by Apollo 8’s Bill Anders.  The photo was originally oriented ninety degrees to the left with the moon filling the right side  of the image. Prior to publication, it was rotated to create the sense of a horizon (progress,  discovery, newness)—symbolic significance pulled from photographic happenstance. Would the photo have resonated as enduringly if it hadn’t arrived back to Earth in December 1968, at the end of a year in America riddled with assassinations, protests, and war?

In For All Mankind, we experience the Apollo program through layers of such interpretation and perception: the astronauts and their hazily recounted memories; the footage they managed to capture with their cameras and the absence of what they didn’t; the mood Eno’s soundtrack evokes; the crafting of one cohesive, fate-tinged story from a spattering of moments one warning light away from not happening at all. To tell of the moon and Apollo and space travel is to place image next to image, recollection next to fact, astronaut next to swirling universe, and then to create meaning and narrative from their juxtaposition. 

For All Mankind understands this essential idea: space exploration is inherently an experiment in movie-making. 

***

In the late 1960s, NASA was nothing if not aware of the cinematic potential of lunar exploration. By the time Apollo 8 launched in December 1968, NASA expected its boys to not only be astronauts but also photographers and cinematographers. Although the set-up varied for each  mission, several cameras were typically affixed to the command and lunar modules, while a few manually operated cameras were carried by the astronauts. Televisions were becoming ubiquitous in American households, and the Apollo program took full advantage, broadcasting live from space and disseminating photographs to encourage public support and engagement in the space program. In advance of Apollo 11, NASA made detailed plans for their own movie of the event. Afterwards, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were even made honorary members of the American Society of Cinematographers. 

For All Mankind demonstrates a playful self-awareness of its identity as a movie about making movies. Reinert cuts together footage of the astronauts peering through cameras, filming each other, and waving. The men of Apollo 8 hold up notebook paper signs reading “Apollo 8 Home Movies” and “Staring [sic] Bill Anders, James Lovell, and Frank Borman.” In other footage, a tape recorder floats through the module playing the fanfare from Richard Strauss’s 1896 Also sprach Zarathustra, best known as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  

It can feel as if Reinert, who set out to make a movie about the moon, instead attempted to  make every movie about the moon. For All Mankind depicts the Apollo program through half a dozen different genres of film. At times, it’s a road movie, just as much about the journey as the destination. In other scenes, the documentary verges on slapstick comedy, as in an extended sequence where the astronauts enjoy the weightlessness of gravity perhaps a little too much.  They bounce and skip across the moon’s surface, tripping and falling and giggling like kids all  the while. The film even briefly wades into surrealist horror: Reinert applies an eerie, dreamlike filter to point-of-view footage of a rover driving across the washed-out moon. In voiceover, Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke recounts a dream he had: 

“In my dream, we were driving the Rover up to the north. And you didn’t really feel like you were out there. It was untouched. The serenity of it had a pristine purity about it. We crossed a hill. I felt, ‘Gosh, I’ve been here before.’ And there was a set of tracks out in front of us. So we asked Houston if we could follow the tracks, and they said yes. And we turned and followed the tracks. Within an hour or so we found this vehicle. It looked just like the Rover. The two people in it–they looked like me and [fellow Apollo 16 astronaut] John [Young]–had been there for thousands  of years.” 

Perpetually, For All Mankind feels like a science fiction film turned real, perhaps in part because  it is. 

Sixty-seven years before Armstrong and Aldrin took their one small step, Georges Méliès beat them to it. His 1902 short film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) is widely regarded as the first piece of science fiction cinema. Its most recognizable shot depicts the blinking face of the man in the moon as a rocket crashes into his eye. In one swift motion (or one quick cut), cinema—still in its earliest days—becomes indelibly linked to space travel. Decades later, when Apollo 11’s lunar module touches down on dusty moon rock, the resulting image cannot help but be seen as a cosmic adaptation of a moment we’ve already seen on film. 

The rest of Méliès’ movie imagines a more whimsically vivid moon than the “magnificent desolation”3 of our real one. Clambering out of their rocket, a group of explorers in top hats and tailcoats traipse across a strikingly stalagmitic lunar surface. They experience a divine snowfall, discover giant mushrooms, and are chased back to their spaceship by spear-wielding, lizard-like  aliens. 

But images from A Trip to the Moon recur in For All Mankind. Save for the aliens, Méliès  predicts a lunar journey with surprisingly accurate beats. A group of scientists agree to the  expedition (in Reinert’s film, President Kennedy declares, “We choose to go to the moon!”). They build and launch their spacecraft (the Saturn V lifts off in a fiery blaze). They land and explore the moon’s wonders (For All Mankind’s astronauts bounce giddily across the surface, declaring, “There’s a good rock right there!”). Both sets of astronauts splash down in the ocean upon their arrival back on Earth. Méliès’s dapper astronomers even experience an Earthrise of their own: a cut-out Earth rises from the bottom of the frame as if on a string, as the men wave their top hats at the distant home they have left behind. 

Certain feelings recur, too. Shortly after their arrival, the astronomers lie down to sleep. As they dream, a collection of surreal celestial sights arc across the sky—a comet, a constellation with faces in the stars, the goddess of the moon—images both beautiful and uncanny. I think of Charles Duke’s eerie lunar dream. 

To travel to the moon, to bring back photographs and footage, to make a movie about the journey is to be in conversation with Méliès (or with any filmmaker or artist or storyteller who ever dreamed of such exploration). For All Mankind and Le Voyage dans la Lune are a rhyming couplet of a double feature. As a pair, they articulate an innately human ability to imagine things beyond our greatest hopes and then to strive to make such imaginings possible, whether through movies or machines. 

***

If space exploration is really about movie-making (the creation, arrangement, and dissemination of fantastical images), then the inverse is also true. All movie-making is an exercise in space exploration—the space within a frame, the space between bodies onscreen, the space between a body onscreen and a body watching, the space between our eyes and our brains and our hearts. 

For All Mankind is concerned with all of these distances but most of all with one in particular: the 238,855 miles between the astronauts on the moon and the home planet they left behind. For all of the film’s joyful, awestruck reveling in the wonder of the cosmos, it remains resolutely aware of the Earth. Our planet is seen in miniature through module windows, filling half the screen in footage of a spacewalk, or rising out of the darkness above the lunar horizon. In one sequence, flight controllers in Houston watch live footage of the Earth from the spacecraft’s telephoto lens. “This transmission is coming to you approximately halfway between the moon and the Earth,” the astronaut informs them. Reinert cuts between the astronauts’ footage—a two-thirds illumined Earth set against an expanse of nothingness—and close-ups of the personnel watching back at Mission Control, each wearing the gentlest of awed smiles on his face. As their spacecraft begins a slow roll, the astronaut filming says to Mission Control, “Hold onto your hat! I’m gonna turn you upside down.” It reminds us that, in a way, these two sets of footage are of the same object—one an extreme long shot of Earth, the other an extreme close up. The only difference is the distance between them. 

For All Mankind suggests that the space between the Earth and the moon can give us a new way of seeing. One of the astronauts describes the moon as “our first footstep in space—where man was able to look back at the Earth and see the Earth, and see himself in a different perspective.” Bill Anders, the photographer of Earthrise, later remarked, “Here we came all this way to the Moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet, the Earth.” 

The images created during the Apollo missions gained immediate international attention precisely for the new perspective they provided. Coming at the end of a decade that saw the Vietnam War, assassinations, protests, and other unrest, they were visions of an Earth where conflicts seemed small and where dividing lines were no longer visible. They also galvanized the budding environmental movement; the notion of a solitary blue earth being swallowed up by  the darkness of space served as a sobering reminder that this planet is all that we have. One of For All Mankind’s astronauts recalls “looking back at the most beautiful star in the heavens—the most beautiful because it’s the one we understand and we know … It’s home, humanity, people, family, love, life …”

What For All Mankind shows us is that to tell a story about the moon is to tell a story about the Earth. At their core, space exploration and movie-making orbit around the same aspiration: that by looking at something new and unknown, we may gain a better understanding of ourselves.

  1. Save for brief footage of John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “We choose to go to the moon” speech and several short clips from Project Gemini.
  2. Optional subtitle tracks on the Criterion edition of the film identify the astronauts in the archival footage as they appear onscreen.
  3. Buzz Aldrin’s words upon seeing the expanse of the lunar surface.