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Blu-ray Review: For All Mankind

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There's a total complete silence and that beautiful view… and the realization, of course, that you're going 25,000 miles an hour. — Russell L. Schweickart (Apollo 9)

For All Mankind arrives on Blu-ray (as well as on DVD) courtesy of Criterion, with a newly restored high-definition transfer, supervised and approved by producer-director Al Reinert. The release also contains new bonus materials in addition to those found on the previous DVD release.

The Movie

For All Mankind is really two films in one. As a historical document, it succinctly pares down NASA's extensive archival footage from three eras of space flight (with the obvious emphasis on the later Apollo missions) into an impressive snapshot of our journey into space and exploration of the moon. If it was simply that, it would still be a very worthwhile and important film. However, it's also a story, and becomes an engaging look into the astronaut's journey through space.

Told by unnamed astronauts (although you can turn on a feature of the disc that will label the narrators for you) and using footage from a wide assortment of missions, For All Mankind seeks to capture the general arc of a lunar mission, without detailing any specific ones too heavily. The anonymous narrators help this effect by offering their perspectives on the overall experience, as well as specific technical challenges, as the footage takes us from launch to breaking the atmosphere, from entering and leaving orbit, and from landing on and returning from the moon.

But the footage is what most viewers are really here for, and this is something else that makes the project so interesting. Filmed by NASA throughout the years, amateur videographers in the form of astronauts and stationary camera mounts capture a host of breathtaking images, some intentional and some accidentally so. Featuring everything from safety footage at launch, to separation module camera mounts to the ones worn by astronauts on their space suits, we're treated to a true behind-the-scenes look at every possible angle of space flight.

More than just a newsreel gallery, the film is paced as a very poetic and reverent journey of mankind as it mounts the seemingly impossible task of leaving its planet. For every energetic scene of active booster rockets, there are numerous featuring the slow drift of a brilliant blue Earth past a portal window, or the measured approach of the lunar module as it hovers over the knotty surface of our neighboring rock. The ambient electronic score by Brian Eno fits perfectly with this contemplative approach, as we're able to pause and reflect on our seemingly impossible success of leaving our own terra for another.

Video / Audio

As with any film that mines archival footage, you can expect a range of quality, from grainy and low frame rate to richly cinematic. But the attention to restoration that the filmmakers went to pays off handsomely. This is very impressive footage, and you couldn't ask for a cleaner transfer. Especially enjoyable is the detail you can now see on the surface of the moon, as the lunar rovers bound over a very rugged and dimpled surface. Even the more grainy scenes reveal a level of clarity easily missed with standard definition.

The audio track is more subdued, as it is mostly supported by narration from the astronauts, with a solid focus on the center channel. Brian Eno's floating, ethereal score is the sole element that expands the track outward, making nice use of the surround field and adding a richer depth to the otherworldly footage. The soundtrack is newly encoded with a pleasing DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, and combined with the impressive video encoding makes for a technical home run.

Bonus Materials

For All Mankind has an enticing collection of supplemental material, beginning with "An Accidental Gift" (HD, 32:00) which serves as a behind-the-scenes of making the film, as well as the task of dealing with source material footage from the vast NASA archives. "On Camera" (HD, 20:35) features video excerpts from the interviews conducted for the film. Not only is it nice to be able to put faces and names with some of the voices, but this section is also exclusive content, so you're able to get some further insights and impressions from the astronauts. "Paintings From The Moon" (HD, 7:33) is a short profile on Alan Bean's post-astronaut career as a painter. Now specializing in art based on the moon, he has even incorporated some of his mission gear into the works. Additionally, there is a slide show of Bean's paintings (HD, 37:52) with commentary by the artist, featuring even more reflections on space travel.

"NASA Audio Highlights" is just that: a collection of transmissions from astronauts during the first ten years of the space program. Some of the most famous soundbites are included, and are played over a high-res shot of the moon. "3,2,1… Blast Off!" (HD, 2:35) shows brief liftoff footage from each of the five rocket boosters used during the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions.

Adding to the informative aspect of the disc, we have the audio commentary to the film featuring director Al Reinert and astronaut Eugene A. Cernan (the last man on the moon). The two largely stick to their respective fields of expertise, which for Reinert includes the research and restoration involved with NASA's vast archive of film, while Cernan gives a detailed look into both the job and feelings of a flight commander on a mission to the moon. The commentary is as interesting as the main film, and should be considered essential viewing.

Also included is a very nice color booklet, which features exceptional still photos from space, as well as two essays: "Fantastic Voyage" by author and film critic Terrence Rafferty, and "A Trip To The Moon" by Al Reinert. The clear case is sized to standard blu-ray height, but is a more classic DVD amaray style.

Conclusion

Along with Band Of Brothers and Planet Earth, For All Mankind should belong on any Blu-ray owner's short list for historical/educational releases. Not only is this a technically impressive title, but its historical record makes it all the more compelling. Everyone should at least rent this title, and the generous and informative bonus features help make it an easy recommendation for purchase as well.

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