Thursday, February 6, 2014

For All Mankind

As I listened to Brian Eno's transcendent orchestrations during 1989's documentary FOR ALL MANKIND, I kept thinking how much better GRAVITY would've been with them rather than the droning aural sludge with which it is cursed. I am one of the few who hasn't given a standing O to the current Oscar nominee, as you can read in my previous review. GRAVITY follows the plight of a novice astronaut as she struggles to survive in deep space, staying ahead of a collision of space junk. Yes, OK, that's a simplistic synopsis but distilled to its essence the film is really all about that, an adventure film, despite this illusion that it has Deeper Meaning. When folks argue, I like to refer them to a quote from LIFE OF PI, the one where the father tells the son that the love he sees in a wild tiger's eyes is merely his own emotion reflected back at him.  

I'm not here to bash GRAVITY, but rather tell you of how enthralled I was while watching FOR ALL MANKIND. I have had a lifelong fascination with NASA and the Space Program, regrettably never having made the drive up the Florida coast to see a launch. The 80 minute film from director Al Reinert is a painstaking edit of countless hours of footage from several Apollo and Gemini missions from the late 1960s and early 70s. We begin on the ground, then inside the capsule, eventually weightless above Earth's atmosphere. There are cuts to Mission Control in Houston, with several sometimes worried looking men in short sleeve dress shirts and ties communicating with the likes of Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Michael Collins. Those clips and names will be familiar to fans of Ron Howard's APOLLO 13, the 1995 drama with Tom Hanks and company.  Right down to the snapshot of the makeshift C02 filter the men threw together under great time constraint.

The narration throughout the film is culled from mission recordings and various interviews with the astronauts, explaining the unexplainable glory of viewing Earth, "floating in a blackness beyond perception".  Seeing fires in the Sahara desert as tiny dots on the blue sphere. That sunrise. There are also the familiar anti-gravity jokes, as food floats away and waste disposal is explained. Clips taken on the moon are breathtaking, even the ones we've seen so many times. One astronaut wonders what would occur if there was a tear in his spacesuit.

The effect is mesmerizing. It works in ways perhaps a traditional narrative (or documentary with an agenda) just couldn't. It celebrates the science and the art of the mission, the unity forged among those watching back on Earth. FOR ALL MANKIND is a must for NASA aficienados, and may well even convert some who aren't.  Just see it. You could wait for the next TCM airing or get your hands on the Criterion disc. Then, purchase Eno's  Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, the 1983 album from which most of the score is used. You may actually go beyond the infinite yourself.
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