Release Date(s)1989 (July 14, 2009)
Studio(s)Apollo Associates (Criterion – Spine #54)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
For All Mankind is among the best and most accessible documentaries yet made on the Apollo missions to the moon. Its beauty lies in its simplicity. As a brief title card at the outset explains, For All Mankind is composed almost entirely of film footage taken by the Apollo astronauts themselves during the actual missions.
The film is narrated by the astronauts as well, with commentary that creates a running, first-person account of the experience. Add to that an ethereal score by composer Brain Eno, and you have a visceral, illusory and at times even hypnotic film experience, made all the more amazing by the fact that everything you’re seeing is real.
As director Al Reinert explains in the audio commentary (which he shares with astronaut Gene Cernan – that last human being to set foot on the moon), virtually all of the film was shot in 16mm. Much of it had never been seen before. The director chose to combine footage from all of the missions to create a single, simulated spaceflight from start to finish. The original camera negatives were obtained from the NASA archives and were carefully blown up to 35mm. The footage was then cleaned up and stabilized, resulting in image quality that’s often better than the original presentations of the day.
Criterion’s new high-def transfer on Blu-ray is a marvel, improving on the already excellent standard DVD version. The film is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio, in gorgeous clarity with lovely detail and vibrant color. Depending on the particular bit of footage, the contrast and level of grain can vary, but it’s almost never distracting. This is as good as this footage has looked and is probably capable of looking – certainly better than you’ve ever seen it before – and that’s very fine indeed. The audio has been upgraded to full lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. There are no cheap surround thrills here – this is largely an ambient experience, with the astronauts’ narration and Eno’s evocative score dominating the soundscape. Occasionally, as in the launch and the staging sequences, the rear channels come more strongly into play, but mostly they’re used to create a sense of space (no pun intended).
All of the original DVD/laserdisc bonus material has carried over, including the audio commentary featuring the director and astronaut Gene Cernan. As with the DVD, there’s a subtitle track used to identify the astronauts speaking on screen during the film, and more traditional subtitle track too. There are several brief audio highlights of historically important moments in the American space program (including, of course, Neil Armstrong’s immortal words). There’s also launch footage of each major rocket booster used in the program through Apollo. But my favorite extra by far is the gallery of paintings by astronaut-turned-artist Al Bean. Bean was the fourth man to walk on the moon, and has spent his days since then working to document the experience on canvas. For this Blu-ray release, a new high-definition introduction to the gallery (with Bean) has been recorded. The gallery itself features some 24 paintings in all, also upgraded to HD, featuring audio commentary by Bean, in his friendly Texas drawl, as he describes each. Bean’s a real character – sort of the everyman of the astronaut corps – and his thoughts and musings are welcome and fascinating to listen to. But that’s not all – the Blu-ray also includes a new 32-minute high-definition documentary on the making of the film, in which Reinert takes the viewer on a visit to the NASA archives in Houston and introduces the NASA footage specialists who were involved in the process. There’s also a new 20-minute video (mostly in HD, but with SD footage as well) featuring additional interview excerpts with 15 of the Apollo astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, some shot by Reinert and others donated from other excellent films on Apollo. The bottom line is that an excellent set of DVD features has gotten even better on Blu-ray.
For All Mankind is one of my very favorite films. Anyone who has seen it probably shares my enthusiasm, and if you haven’t, this disc is simply a must – worth watching not just yourself, but with your kids too. I’m absolutely thrilled to have it on Blu-ray. My personal thanks to Reinert, and to Criterion, for somehow managing to improve upon their already fine work. Highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt