For All Mankind: Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Criterion is debuting For All Mankind on Blu-ray Disc cleverly marketed around the film’s 20th anniversary and simultaneous 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing. As deliberate as its delivery into our hands is, the film’s existence is a byproduct of coincidental happenstance.

For All Mankind chronicles the voyages of 24 astronauts to the moon on NASA Apollo missions launched between 1968 and 1972 as a single unified journey with footage cobbled together from the various missions. No astronaut, mission, or mission control member are identified by name (unless by choice, more on that in the bonus features) which, though slightly irritating at first, quickly becomes evident as a necessity for the film’s name to make sense. These brave pioneering men, most of whom provide anonymous retrospective voiceover throughout the film, represent not themselves in these historic missions, but all of mankind.

Footage director Al Reinart spliced together to create his film is unlike anything seen by public eyes before. While television stations and producers were fixated on a handful of now iconic images, Al stumbled into unseen Apollo footage by chance while researching at NASA that no other guest bothered to look at. Naturally he thought, “Why is this incredible footage tucked away? Everyone should have a chance to see it.” From the footage we get to eavesdrop on NASA’s greatest Apollo follies, triumphs and near tragedies, and it is guaranteed to grab your attention and keep it long after the final signoff.

NASA was at the cutting edge of video camera technology during the Apollo missions and customized various types of cameras to capture the footage. Stationary cameras were affixed inside the spacecraft while portable handheld cameras could be attached to the front of an astronaut’s suit while working on the lunar surface.

The most remarkable footage comes from cameras installed outside the spacecraft designed to record the voyage from liftoff through the journey to the moon so engineers could study it to detect any technical anomalies or room for improvement in future missions. The only way to get the cameras back to Earth was to jettison them from the spacecraft just before reentry so giant planes dragging nets could track their beacons and “catch” the cameras before they crashed to the ground.

Taking that into consideration it is amazing the footage survived the journey, much less still existing today. Criterion presents For All Mankind on Blu-ray in 1080p video resolution framed at 1.33:1. The film had previously been available on DVD nearly a decade ago but thanks to a newly restored HD transfer it has never looked as sharp as it does now. The restoration is simply magnificent given the aforementioned harsh environments the cameras operated in. I could nitpick infrequent instances of specks and dirt on the print missed during the extensive cleaning process, varying degrees of sharpness and other minor inconsistencies inherent with dissimilar photographing conditions. With For All Mankind this small stuff is not worth sweating over. NASA’s storage techniques for the film reels and Criterion’s HD restoration offer the best image quality imaginable for this film. Even better, the technical details behind the restoration are available in the nifty inclusive full-color booklet.

A separate restoration was undertaken on the original audio to remove noise and bump up the bitrate to 24-bit for a new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless mix. The effort is a resounding success striking a balance between the more recently recorded astronaut voiceovers and the vintage audio recorded then and there with the visuals. “Clean” is the best single word that could be used to describe this new mix, which must have been no easy feat for the sound technicians to accomplish.

Criterion offers optional “Identifications” hiding in the setup menu that can be toggled on or off at any time during the film. Activating this feature adds text to the screen that identifies the astronauts, mission control specialists and missions that would otherwise remain nameless unless you really knew your NASA history. The film is more engaging and poignant with them off, but equally informational during a repeat viewing if switched on.

All of the bonus features are presented in high definition and anchored by a new making-of documentary. I consider all to be mandatory viewing after soaking in the feature to not only put the film in perspective, but dig further into the previously unseen world of what it was like to walk in the boots of an Apollo astronaut.

NEW: An Accidental Gift (32:00) – This documentary explores gathering the footage for All Mankind from NASA’s film repository with remarks by Al Reinart; Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean; and NASA film editors Don Pickard and Chuck Welch, film vault curator Morris Williams, and lead librarian Mike Gentry. Without Al’s curiosity and perseverance, made evident in this fantastic piece, the footage shot primarily to diagnose problems and not meant for public eyes might still be buried in a NASA vault.

NEW: Paintings From the Moon (37:53) – Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean retired from NASA to pursue a career as a painter. In this feature, Bean offers a video introduction before a slideshow of his artwork inspired by journeying to the moon is put on display. While the artwork is incredible, the real value is in listening to Bean’s commentary overflowing with neat little facts and tidbits, such as preserving the footprints of previous astronauts who set foot on the moon, that extend far beyond the feature film’s scope.

On Camera (20:35) – On-camera and candid interviews performed by Al Reinart with 15 of the 24 astronauts who ventured to the moon. Some of the interviews are one-on-one while others were recorded during press events. Seeing the former astronauts on camera years after their mission’s dovetails conveniently into the audio-only interview snippets recorded for the feature film.

NASA Audio Highlights (6:45) – Twenty-one famous audio clips collected throughout NASA’s pre-Space Shuttle programs, beginning with Alan Shepard’s first ride into space and ending with Eugene Cernan’s last words spoken from the moon during Apollo 17. A lone beautiful image of the moon remains on-screen while the infamous words are spoken.

3, 2, 1… Blast Off! (2:35) – Neat albeit extremely brief examples of each NASA rocket booster taking off as used for Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab missions. Some background information differentiating each rocket’s capabilities would have brought needed reference to the visuals.

Commentary – Al Reinart and astronaut Eugene Cernan recorded this commentary exclusively for Criterion back in 1999. Much of what Reinart has to say is redundant with the documentaries and featurettes, especially An Accidental Gift which is more rewarding to watch than this commentary to listen to. Cernan’s perspective on the film and his own memories of being a part of three lunar missions are worth an additional 80 minutes of your time if virgin to the commentary.

While Al Reinhart had a hand in scripting Hollywood’s versions of these events in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon miniseries for HBO, those films play up the drama and suspense for the sake of added entertainment value. For All Mankind is raw, emotional, stirring. It is history without filters, actors or scripts; the way history is meant to be retold. Thanks to the committed and diligent efforts of Reinhart and a fantastic restoration by Criterion, For All Mankind and its supplements on Blu-ray should be mandatory viewing for not only everyone who owns a Blu-ray player now, but all future classrooms where high definition is commonplace.

– Dan Bradley

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