Given the political significance of the American space program, one might be excused for raising a skeptical eye at the notion the Apollo 11 ascended to Luna herself “for all mankind.” However, director Al Reinert seems to have had little interest in politics after reviewing more than six million feet of film shot by astronauts and eighty hours of NASA interviews. In his 1989 documentary, the moon mission springs forward fully grown from the forehead of Zeus, without reference to mother mathematicians or physicists, scientists of any stripe, Copernicus, Galileo, the defiled corpse of Ptolemy. What has captured Reinert’s imagination is the three cowboys, Quixotes all, who rode a rocket to the nearest solid rock available.
If you saw the movie more than a year ago, this might not be what you remember. For All Mankind is a movie with a split ethos; the film is most often recalled for its gorgeous score and even more sublime imagery. Reinhert forgoes the Ken Burns-tendency to cut away from an interesting spectacle to drab historians speaking benignly before a camera; Mankind is nothing but stock footage and stock photography, most of it shot by astronauts. The Burns-style documentary is more bookish, allowing the viewer reprieves from the intensity of the images to think on the subject from the outside. Reinhert offers a far more immersive experience, though. The interviews conducted years after the fact play over the images, but no shot of a solitary, isolated talking head is seen. In this way, the film plays more like a fiction than what we have come to expect of a documentary. The images which accompany the disembodied narration are other-worldly and humbling; when the Apollo 11 is far enough from the Earth that the astronauts can take in the whole of it as a single shape—a circle, a dot—I was reminded of the moment in the Comedy (XXI of the Paradise) when Dante finally turns around and stares through all seven realms to his home planet, and comments on how small and trivial its’ affairs seem in context. A magisterial score by Brian Eno ads profound heft to the whole film; the music is glacial, majestic, and more than twenty-five years later, the two simple instruments used (Eno’s synthesizer and a slide-guitar played by Daniel Lanois, the producer responsible for Emmylou Harris’ ethereal Wrecking Ball) effortlessly eclipse what other contemporary composers must beg, borrow and steal from entire orchestras.
At the same time, Reinhert shows Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin to be a trio of knuckleheads. I find it hard to believe the director did not cull for his film the most humbling, even the most embarrassing moments from the whole mission. The narrative eye lingers on the astronauts goofing off with floating objects, sending flashlights toppling end over end toward one another in a giddy game of catch, even while one of the missionaries comments on how they often shirked “work” to play around. When talking with mission control a day into their journey, the astronauts are fed celebrity gossip and sports scores. They comment on the difficulty of trips to the john in zero gravity and listen to country western music. While walking on the moon, Aldrin and Armstrong comment on the possibility of a quick and terrifying death were one of their suits to be punctured, although Reinhert juxtaposes these comments with either moonwalker happily bouncing up and down over a rock encrusted surface, tripping, falling time and again. In all of this, a remarkable chasm opens up between the average nature of the men and the daunting, dignified nature of their mission. Reinhert is careful not to cut the mission off at the knees— the whole show never quite sinks to the level of a circus, although it gets dangerously close, and perhaps the danger Reinhert is interested in is not the complicated, easily-awry matrix of minute calculations and transactions which must come off perfectly, but the possibility that absolutely no one truly appreciates how philosophically (and theologically) audacious the whole project truly is. When Aldrin and Armstrong leave the moon, they are the first men in 1900 years to ascend from a planet in order to return home— the last time such a thing might be claimed, the apostles were gathered atop Olivet to see the Son return to the Father. Perhaps part of the enduring charm of the film is the religious overtones in such images of ascent, or in the vaguely spiritual description the astronauts give of the moon as a place already occupied by god, finally hospitable despite a desolate, grey appearance.
In less capable hands, such a story would seem schizophrenic, although in Reinhert’s hands, it all comes off as quite balanced. Some divine genius is hidden in the machinery of the Apollo 11, as it seems no purely human imagination could have conceived a trip to the moon, let alone pulled it off. Even the men who undertake the mission don’t seem up to the task, but stumble across the galaxy on someone else’s dime, sometimes contemplating the earth from a distance, sometimes executing visual gags for a camera at gravity’s expense. The introduction of the film— an illuminated rocket at night, thirty stories tall— is married to deep undulating monoliths of bass which brood heavily over the austere, imposing spectacle. From such a departure point, the film never returns to make the work of man seem so profound. After lift off, the film is about the beauty of the moon and her daffy suitors.
It is a beguiling romance.