For All Mankind (1989)

2009 #42
Al Reinert | 77 mins | TV (HD)

For All MankindFor All Mankind tells the story of NASA’s Apollo missions to the Moon using only NASA’s own footage of the real missions.

It’s not a documentary in the sense that most people perceive the form — i.e. a highly realistic presentation of the facts — but instead something a little more interpretive, aiming to recreate the feeling and experience of travelling to the moon, not the hard facts of who went when and how it was done. As such it is both beautiful and artistic, featuring stunning photography that has been sensitively edited and scored.

In this regard, it makes In the Shadow of the Moon look like a Hollywood remake. While they follow the same tack — telling the tale of the Moon missions with just the testimony of the astronauts, treating it as one big mission rather than taking them all in strict chronological order — For All Mankind does it with a greater sense of artistry. Where Shadow feels like a typical documentary, with talking heads and onscreen identification of who’s speaking, Mankind just uses original footage and astronaut’s narration, never bothering to identify the speaker. Both styles have their place, and Shadow adds a great deal to the story with its retrospective comments by the astronauts, but the glorious footage and skilled editing of Mankind — and the added wonder of seeing it in HD, it must be said — leaves one with a sense of awe that isn’t as present in the more informative Shadow.

These two films make an excellent pair then, but For All Mankind’s beauty provides the superior experience.

5 out of 5

For All Mankind placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)

2009 #40
David Sington | 96 mins | TV | U / PG

In the Shadow of the MoonIn the Shadow of the Moon tells the story of NASA’s Apollo missions using only contemporary footage and the words of the men who actually walked on the Moon.

The telling is dominated by the words of the actual astronauts, describing their personal experiences and feelings. Rather than following a mission-by-mission chronology it mixes all their stories together, thereby telling the tale of a journey to the Moon and exploring its surface only once. It’s a neat way of editing it, albeit essentially borrowed from For All Mankind, because it avoids repetition while also covering a variety of perspectives. The typically reticent Neil Armstrong is conspicuous by his unsurprising absence, but this allows the personalities of some of the others to come out more (Buzz Aldrin features relatively little too, for example), perhaps none more so than Mike Collins, the man ‘left behind’ while Armstrong and Aldrin stepped into the history books. He comes across as thoroughly likable and it’s a pleasure whenever he’s on screen.

Narration is limited to a couple of brief intertitles and that contained on archive footage, culled not only from NASA archives but also newsreels, adverts, speeches and so forth. In this it manages to avoid using some of the more obvious and over-played clips, such as Kennedy’s famous “not because it is easy, but because it is hard” speech, while unearthing some interesting bits of its own, like Armstrong’s parents on a game show the day he became an astronaut, being asked how they’d feel should he happen to be the first man on the Moon. Such found footage is often used to put the missions in the context of wider events at appropriate junctures, such as Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement during the time Apollo 8 led the first men to orbit the Moon, or showing the whole world watching the TV broadcast of Armstrong stepping on to the Moon for the first time.

Although this external perspective is welcome, while being kept to an appropriate minimum, it’s difficult not to note that this is exactly what the HBO dramatisation, From the Earth to the Moon, did at these points. Other points of emphasis feel similarly culled, such as the way Apollo 13 is almost glossed over, but there are only so many ways of telling the significant elements of the same story and any accusations of plagiarism, from either HBO’s series or For All Mankind, aren’t seriously justified.

A closing perspective treads the fine line that leads toward sentiment and preachiness, but errs on the right side of awe and significance. Some have criticised the end for having too much religion and spirituality and not presenting a conflicting, ‘accurate’ scientific perspective. As a staunch atheist, I found no such problem: beliefs are there to an extent, but they’re not overpowering and there’s no apparent religious agenda, as some critics might have you believe.

In the Shadow of the Moon may not offer the plain facts and figures of how we went to the Moon and who did it when, but it does present the reflections of the men who risked their lives to further the knowledge and reach of our species. Their thoughts on this are invaluable.

4 out of 5