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Go / No Go :
"For All Mankind" DVD

Review by Rick Houston

Studio:   The Criterion Collection
Release:   1999
Length:   79 minutes
MSRP:   $39.95
Extras:   Commentary by Al Reinert and Gene Cernan; commentary by Alan Bean on his artwork; NASA audio highlights and liftoff footage; optional onscreen identification of astronauts and mission control specialists

The footage and quality included in "For All Mankind" is virtually unsurpassed in any space-related documentary ever produced. Much of the film was, according to bonus commentary provided by producer/director Al Reinert, reproduced directly from the flown NASA negatives. There are shots and angles rarely, if ever, seen before.

The producer says in his commentary that only one shot, a view of the moon against blue sky shot through the hatch of a command module, was staged. Everything else is the real deal, and that's what makes that portion of the work so special.

Reinert, the screenwriter for "Apollo 13" and episodes four and six of the HBO miniseries "From The Earth To The Moon" put a tremendous amount of work into assembling the very best images possible for this production. In that, it was a job very well done.

The narration provided by astronauts is also first rate. When a command module pilot - from the sound of his voice, you're pretty sure it's Dick Gordon, but we'll address that issue later - talks about not getting the chance to walk on the moon, you feel the emotion behind the sentiment.

"For All Mankind" is billed as the story of the 24 men who made the trip to the moon, and does so as if all were inside one very big command/lunar module on one single mission to the moon. There are no distinctions between missions whatsoever. In the opening suitup sequence, in order, Alan Bean, Buzz Aldrin, John Young, Charlie Duke, Jim Irwin, Aldrin again, Dave Scott and Pete Conrad are shown preparing for their launches.

Later, to capture the feel of an emergency, audio of Apollo 12's lightning strike and Apollo 13's oxygen-tank explosion are intercut.

Historically accurate, this program ain't. With a futuristic score by Brian Eno, "For All Mankind" strives to be as much an art film as documentary.

Purists, such as this reviewer, will find some problems with "For All Mankind." Perhaps its splitting hairs, but if this is the story of the 24 men who made the journey to the moon, images of Ed White's spacewalk during Gemini 4, in addition to the Apollo 7, Apollo 9 and Apollo/Soyuz crews should not have been included. While each of these missions was crucial to getting Apollo to the moon - with the obvious exception of Apollo/Soyuz - they did not actually make the trip.

If this is a tribute to the space program in general, then those flights belong. If not, they don't.

More egregiously, audio of Neil Armstrong's first steps down the ladder and on the lunar surface are played over footage of other astronauts. First, going down the ladder, red commander's stripes are visible on the sleeve of the astronaut, which Armstrong did not wear. Such identifying stripes were not worn on the surface until Alan Shepard did so on Apollo 14.

Then, audio from Armstrong's timeless "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" quote is played over images of Pete Conrad's leap from the ladder's bottom rung to the landing gear footpad.

That's not the way it happened.

Armstrong's first seconds on the lunar surface were the very essence of drama. Nothing need have been added or deleted. It's not the only time in "For All Mankind" that the audio and video don't match. Its possible to get past and accept other instances where this happens, given the overall "one mission" theme of the program, but not when it comes to Armstrong and those first steps on the moon.

Certainly, the TV picture from the lunar surface on Apollo 11 was dark and grainy, but that only added to the drama. Armstrong and Aldrin were in an unknown, desolate, forbidden place - and the pictures seemed to prove it.

Extras: It's easy to imagine space enthusiasts watching "For All Mankind," and enjoying themselves trying to identify each astronaut and mission control specialist who appears on-screen. They could make a game out of it... "That's Fred Haise." "That's Donn Eisele." "No, I'm pretty sure it's Bill Anders."

Unfortunately, whoever was in charge of the on-screen identification feature for this DVD would have lost at this game, and lost very badly. In no less than 15 instances, astronauts are misidentified or not identified at all.

Poor Jack Swigert. His name was listed on-screen three times, each time incorrectly.

The Apollo 16 crew became the Apollo 17 group as they walked from the suitup room to the van that would take them to the launch pad.

Dave Scott, John Young and Ed Mitchell are shown in mission control, and none are identified at all.

Tom Stafford and John Young became the crew of Apollo 11, and seconds later, the same shot is shown, and they're correctly listed as the crew of Apollo 10.

Jim Lovell is shown in an emergency sequence during the film, and the idenfication on-screen shows the mission as Apollo 13. As the camera pans left, however, Frank Borman comes into view.

That would be Apollo 8, folks.

Finally, Gene Kranz's last name is misspelled "Krantz" each and every time he appears on-screen.

Missing altogether from the identification feature is the name of the astronaut providing voice-over throughout the picture. Those familiar with the space program can pick out Gene Cernan's voice, Alan Bean's and possibly others'. But Ken Mattingly, for instance, is listed as a narrator, and there's no way of telling when he speaks.

On the other hand, the commentary track by Reinert and Cernan is superb. They have an hour and 20 minute conversation, and the whole time, they engage in casual, informative commentary. If you're bothered by the hodge-podge nature of the mission's audio, just play it with this track turned on. However, then you miss the narration by the (other) astronauts.

Even better than the Reinert/Cernan commentary are Alan Bean's narration of 24 of his paintings. Each of these audio captions lasts for at least a couple minutes, and others as much as three or four. You hear the love for what Bean does in his voice, as well as the respect for what he did in his former life as an astronaut.

Also included are brief snatches of audio from various moments in NASA's history, as well as launches of each type of rocket used in the early days of America's manned spaceflight program.

Go/No Go: If you're looking for facts and figures, dates and times, this nearly $40 disc isn't for you. If you're looking for first-hand testimony of what it was like to go to the moon, then save up your pennies and give it a shot. The footage and astronaut narration is good, and the Alan Bean extra could probably stand as a solo release aimed at hardcore space buffs.

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About the reviewer:
Rick Houston is an avid collector of DVDs (he has more than 600). Houston is also a space history enthusiast, so he is sure to not miss a documentary or docudrama.

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