Saturday, July 4, 2009


"You know what the trouble is, Brucie? We used to make shit in this country. Build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket."

- Frank Sobotka, The Wire - The Complete Second Season

Though Criterion's brilliantly remastered reissue of the 1989 space race documentary For All Mankind isn't due in stores until July 14, it seems a fitting movie for a July 4th review. Though it's not actually all that like me to pause and reflect on my country's independence, not even on this day of all days, it's hard to avoid at this particular juncture in our history. With cries for a more fair democracy ringing out of Iran reminding us of our own origins, and with the U.S. itself seeming to take one step forward (a black President at last!) and stumbling a couple of steps back (gay marriage still struggling, the economy tanking), perhaps part of the problem is that guys like me don't take enough time to sit and think about how we got where we are and what it can say about where we're going.

Some conservative pundits are trying to roll the morality dice and claim it's a lack of values that has brought our downfall (we don't pray enough, we don't make enough babies, etc.). It strikes me as the same old song, the easy out. Look back over history, and the general populace has never been good enough for the morality police; to be facetious about it, the heart has always wanted what it wants, and it's always used the loins to get that stuff. To my mind, where perhaps these people have won, however, is in the underlying argument that, to their mind, part of what leads people astray is the fact that they think too much. Science, technology, advances in human achievement--this is all just stinkin' thinkin'. Better to not ponder, you just give yourself a headache. Which might be well and good if we took better care of our farmers, our autoworkers, our teachers, the people who go out and do what needs to be done every day, those hard-working folks that provide us with what is fundamental to our society. They are always the first to be devalued whenever someone tries to curb anything that goes against their personal "greater good," and this holds true whatever side of the aisle you stand on, whatever hole you punch in the voting booth.

This is why I lead with the quote from Frank Sobotka, the fictional union leader from The Wire, whose frustrations with the obstacles stacked against the working man compelled him to leave the straight and narrow path. It speaks to the frustration of many and the argument that for America to regain its footing as an economic leader, we have to start making stuff again, inventing stuff, leading the way. While this may seem a bit far afield of the space race, the truth is, our reasons for going to the moon are not that dissimilar, and our waning interest in finding new and undiscovered wonders is part and parcel with our waning drive to innovate and manufacture. Al Reinert chooses to open For All Mankind with the following excerpt from John F. Kennedy's 1962 speech in favor of space exploration.

[Link to video of full speech]

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills...." Is there anything that speaks to the American spirit more than that? It brings to mind Kennedy's poet laureate, Robert Frost, and perhaps his most famous poem, "The Road Not Taken", which is all about choosing to forge a new path, not going to the same old way, exploring all the unknowns that life has to offer. "I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference."

Space has not been called "the final frontier" for nothing. Once Manifest Destiny took us from one coast of this continent to the other, what else was left? We could go down in the depths of the ocean, or up to the heights of space. For all the bad that was done in the name of Manifest Destiny, we can't fault the spirit of it or deny that the American will to move forward achieved great things. So, when did we stop looking? When did we stop wanting to see?

To those who say, "But why go into space? What's there to find?" I reply "Why not? Everything!" Though the better and far more eloquent reply is this film. For All Mankind should change any skeptical mind about traveling the stars. I used to be one of those skeptics, one who thought our money was better spent elsewhere, and though Reinert's documentary is not the sole catalyst for bringing me back around--I, like every child born before the Challenger tragedy, at one point wanted to be an astronaut--it's still the best explanation I can give you.

Reinert cut For All Mankind together using footage shot entirely by NASA. They had cameras in the control room, on the launch pad, and in the rockets themselves. Movies shot by the astronauts in their space capsules are accompanied by the real audio between the ship and mission control, as well as some humorous musical accompaniment from the astronauts' individual tape players. Each crew member got their own personal cassette deck and one tape to go with it. How amazing to hear Buck Owens and Merle Haggard performing songs especially for the rocket jocks, complete with words of encouragement! That is how much we once cared about boldly going where no man has gone before. Science wasn't scary, it was exciting. Of course the cowboys were on board, those guys never wanted to sit still.

Better yet are the reminiscences from the astronauts that Reinert has collected. These are not put together in a narrative, "so it all went like this" kind of way, but instead, to give us the general impressions of space travel, to illuminate what it must be like. Thus, amazing shots of the Earth taken from incredible distances are accompanied by the men who took those shots talking about what it was like to stare out of a tiny window and see the whole of our planet nestled in the infinite blackness of the universe. Can you imagine? To witness such things as no one else had ever witnessed them, even on film--had these men not gone out and gotten this footage, we would have never seen our own world from that vantage point. We'd be no better for not having this record than had we continued to think the world was flat. Knowing matters.

In getting access to these archives, Reinert was granted unprecedented access to the space missions. For All Mankind isn't just a portrait of what was seen, it is also a portrait of what was done. Reinert is just as fascinated by the men who pulled off these feats as he is by the feats themselves, and so equal measure is given to what is happening back down in Houston and to how the space-faring astronauts spent their time. There is always something compelling about men getting together to pursue a common goal. If you think of movies like All the President's Men, which makes journalistic research exciting, or Zodiac, where the procedures of police investigation are more important than shoot-outs, a bunch of guys in a room talking and strategizing can be quite dramatic. Hell, Jay Roach's Recount made political lawyering and counting ballots feel like a race to stop a mad bomber, even with the audience already knowing how it would all turn out. Such is the case here, and Reinert looks for all the humanity, such as the crisis-fueled excitement over malfunctions or the things that keep the two crews connected, be it sharing personal news about a party or the world news. Hearing the sports scores can keep a fellow grounded even when he's in zero gravity.

Enhancing the visual poetry of stars and spinning planets, Brian Eno has provided Reinert with a dreamy ambient score, one of the composer's best works. It could have been easy to overdo it with the spacey stuff, or even lazy to go with something overly New Agey and all lasers and synths. Instead, Eno shows a passion for the material, and he works in an emotional range that stems from the thrill of discovery and the sensation of the travels. It's beautiful work [see/hear the clip below, though note it's takend from an older source than this new edition DVD]. In their new edition, newly mastered in high-def and available in standard and Blu-ray formats, Criterion has really brought For All Mankind into a whole new era. Eno's score sounds tremendous, and the film looks newly minted. The blue of our blue planet is incredible to see, the details of the clouds giving it texture and form, and the contrast against the deep black sky is startling. Also, the flotsam and jetsam of the outer atmosphere and the debris that tumbles off the rocket--every piece is crystal clear. You've never seen the craters of the moon--the first lunar landing takes up the last third of For All Mankind--in such spectacular relief. If you've only seen the rebroadcast news footage, the tiny television feed, you haven't seen it at all.

The new edition of For All Mankind has a documentary called "An Accidental Gift" that explores where the material came from and why NASA was so careful to capture it all. It wasn't as much for the posterity or the glory--though you can tell they knew, they felt, that it was important--as much as it was just to preserve the details for future study. It was meant to be no more than the documentation of the process, not a self-conscious historical record; nor was it Art. Thanks to Reinert, who dug through it all and made this film, it's now both. NASA kept all this stuff so one day they could look back and learn something; Al Reinert shaped it into cinema so we could, too.

And that's why we should go in space, why we should keep going, why it's worth the money. Because every time we do, we know something we didn't know before, even if it's to discover how much we really don't know. It keeps us humble and striving. Like one of the astronauts said to Reinert, just by going to this place we had never been, a place we were never meant to be in an environment that was not built for us, the curve of human evolution was bent forever.

So, next time someone asks you why we're exploring Mars, explain to them that it's because if we didn't, we would, as a species, flatline. We do it for the sake of all mankind.

"And this is one of those timeless moments. Something real, something urgent, something important is happening. The human race is fumbling toward the light through outer darkness; and there is a feeling here of movement, of genuine wonder. The sense of isolation dissipates."

- Harlan Ellison, writing on Voyager II
"Saturn, November 11th," reprinted in Stalking The Nightmare


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