For All Mankind
In July 1969, the space race ended when Apollo 11 fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s challenge of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” No one who witnessed the lunar landing will ever forget it. Twenty years later, Al Reinert constructed a documentary that imparts the unforgettable story of the twenty-four astronauts who participated in the Apollo mission to land on the moon—told in their words and in their voices, using the images they captured. With its awe-inspiring, otherworldly footage and a haunting atmospheric soundtrack by Brian Eno, For All Mankind stirs us with a profound sense of compassion for the “pale blue dot” that is our home, and it is still the most radical, visually dazzling work of cinema that has been made about this earthshaking event.
Revisiting another one of their staple titles, The Criterion Collection presents Al Reinert’s documentary around NASA’s Apollo missions, For All Mankind, in two aspect ratios on a triple-layer disc: 1.33:1, replicating the original ratio of NASA’s archival footage, and 1.85:1, representing the film’s theatrical ratio. Both films are presented with Dolby Vision in 2160p/24hz. Criterion also includes a high-definition, 1080p/24hz version on a second dual-layer Blu-ray disc, though only in the ratio of 1.33:1. This disc appears to be just a re-pressing of their original Blu-ray edition: not only does it use the same master that the old disc uses, it’s also still missing the “resume” feature that Criterion would add later. All of my bookmarks were also carried over from the old disc to the Blu-ray here.
When Criterion first announced their adoption of the 4K format, For All Mankind was not a title I would have thought as an early contender for upgrade, yet here we are. My hesitation comes from the fact that the film is comprised primarily of archival 16mm footage filmed over 50 years ago by NASA, all of varying quality, and I just couldn’t imagine the format offering a worthwhile benefit or improvement over Criterion’s decent, if admittedly dated high-def presentation from 2009. Well, I’m happy to report I was very, very wrong to be skeptical; the film ends up being a prime candidate for the format.
Starting things off, in order to get as much out of the image as possible Criterion has performed an entirely new restoration and have gone to the best source available (since the original 16mm footage has been literally frozen by NASA), conducting a 4K scan on the 35mm blowup negative made directly from NASA’s original 16mm film footage. For past presentations, Criterion used a high-definition scan from a 35mm interpositive. The improvements, just from that initial task alone, provide a significant boost to the presentation by offering crisper details, finer or otherwise, and a cleaner rendering of the grain. Since we’re dealing with a blow-up of 16mm footage it should come as no surprise to say that the film is grainy, but it ends up being finer than I was expecting, if still heavy, and it’s rendered so cleanly and perfectly that it’s never a distraction. It ends up really looking projected 16mm film.
So, just in offering a sharper and cleaner film-like image I’d say the upgrade is significant, but some of the real benefits come in the implementation of HDR and Dolby Vision. The film does, a lot of the time, come off darker on the whole in comparison to the old presentation, but I realize that that really has to do with how Criterion was getting around the limitations of the older format, at least in relation to brightness and contrast. Pure blacks are pretty rare on the old Blu-ray, with blacks looking a little murky a lot of the time. A good example of this is the early shot of the spotlights firing up over a dark background that looks more gray-ish than black, but I suspect that’s so you could still see what was going on in the background. That ends up not being an issue here with that same shot: now, over a purely black background, those lights fire up, but the improved contrast allows those background details, that may otherwise be hidden, to pop out. The SDR presentation also shows this, but with HDR employed it seems to just push those details out a bit better with cleaner gradients.
HDR and Dolby Vision also further enhances the image other ways, usually in rendering highlights and light reflecting off of metallic surfaces. Shots looking outside the shuttle window are just stunning now with how the light catches the edges of the window's frame or debris against the black background of space, and I need to stress those blacks are pure. The light off of the moon’s surface ends up being surprising as well, exposing more shadows in the process, with the division from the bright moon surface to the black void of space being as clean as can be. The improved contrast also aids brighter sequences, like the early scene where the astronauts are suiting up, more details on the white surfaces now showing up after being blown out and hidden on the old Blu-ray. The flames from the launch sequence also show more shades of red and orange and they blend cleanly, again lending to that wonderful photographic look. The launch sequence also benefits from HDR in some other subtle ways. For example, as the ship rises, it of course leaves a large trail of smoke that ends up just looking like a white streak on the Blu-ray. With this presentation, you still make out that white streak, but it looks significantly hotter where the thrusters of the ship are located, clearly dividing those flames and the smoke trail behind it. It’s a small detail really, but it adds so much.
As to the restoration itself this is probably the cleanest I’ve yet seen the film. Unsurprisingly, since we’re dealing with archival material that, in most cases, was created in unusual circumstances—like, for starters, on the moon—there are still some minor marks, scratches, and fluctuations, but it’s all few and far between. Some of the footage looks to also come from something along the lines of a kinescope process, which involved a film camera filming a video monitor, so there are of course inherent limitations to the footage there. But, after releasing the film a number of times already, Criterion has really gone the extra mile with this restoration and this is easily the cleanest and sharpest I’ve ever seen it, Criterion removing most marks and scratches without impacting the final image in a negative way.
As unlikely as it would have seemed, the film looks incredible on the format.
(SDR screen grabs are provided from both presentations and have been taken from the source disc converted to JPG files. They are presented in full resolution and may not properly fit some monitors. While the screen grabs should offer a general idea of quality, they should not be used for reference purposes. Though I tried to take similar grabs from both the full-frame and widescreen presentations, getting within the same second, they are not guaranteed to be from the exact same frames.)
As far as I can establish, Criterion is reusing the same DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtrack found on the Blu-ray; I couldn’t detect any difference, though admittedly I'm not the best at pointing out the finer nuances between audio tracks. I’m probably less enamored by it now compared to when I first heard it sooo many years ago (and my score will probably reflect that), but for what it is it’s an impressive sounding mix that utilizes the surround channels effectively when called for. The film uses very little of what one could call live audio; outside of the radio conversations between the astronauts and the crew on the ground, Reinert incorporates manufactured sound effects along with voice over narration recorded by those that were involved with the missions. This all sounds sharp and crisp, with the audio spread out appropriately between the channels, but it really shines best when Brian Eno’s ethereal score swells over the viewing space, while the actual explosion from the launch shakes things up nicely thanks to the lower frequency. For a documentary, though, the mix goes well out of its way.
Criterion devotes the 4K disc to the film and its two aspect ratios, only including the audio commentary featuring director All Reiner and Apollo 17 commander Eugen A. Cernan as an alternate soundtrack. This commentary, recorded in 1999 for Criterion’s first DVD edition, is still an excellent one despite the short running time of around 80-minutes. The two have been thankfully recorded together and give each other an equal amount of time. Reinert comments extensively around his reasons for making the film, which was primarily in the hopes of putting NASA’s footage to good use and present them on the big screen, before getting into film editing and the long process of gathering footage and cutting it together. He also explains the reasoning behind the decision to edit footage from multiple missions together to make it feel like one mission with an “anonymous three-man crew.” He also covers the process behind blowing up 16mm film and getting around some of the inherent problems in the footage he ended up dealing with.
Cernan on the other hand talks specifically about the missions, his in particular, and also serves to put the film in context, pointing out on occasion what mission certain clips are from, or even pointing out some of his fellow astronauts. He gets into the spiritual aspects of flying to the moon and shares his fond memories. Altogether the two provide a quick moving, informative track that gives wonderful first-hand looks into bringing the film together and what it was like to go to the moon.
The remaining features are found on the included Blu-ray disc that also houses a high-def version of the film.
Carried over from the 2009 Blu-ray and DVD editions is the documentary An Accidental Gift: The Making of For All Mankind. Running 32-minutes and divided into six chapters, the documentary delves deeper into the making of the film, expanding on what Reinert covered in the commentary. Unsurprisingly, putting the film together was a monumental task, Reinert having to go through NASA’s archival footage over a period of years (a lot of it not even catalogued by NASA by the sounds of it) to find what he felt looked good and/or cinematic.
NASA film archivists/editors Dan Pickard, Check Welch, Morris Williams, and Mike Gentry share details around how the footage was filmed along with why it was filmed and the process that goes into preserving it. This process includes literally freezing the original footage, and we get a great little tour of the facility here. What gets pointed out a lot throughout is that the footage was shot for scientific purposes or for engineers to review in case any issues arose, but in the process they “accidentally” caught some wonderful, beautiful images, which Reinert scooped up with glee for his film.
The documentary starts out like a typical making-of, with talking-heads and the like, but it gets better as it goes, offering tours of facilities and showing additional footage that was not used in the film. Well worth watching if one hasn’t managed to yet.
Also from the old Blu-ray is On Camera, offering up a collection of Al Reinert’s favourite on-screen astronaut interviews from films like The Wonder of it All, The Other Side of the Moon, and Our Planet Earth. The 20-minute feature edits together interviews with Charlie Duke, Al Worden, Neil Armstrong, Charles Conrad Jr., William Anders, James Lovell, Michael Collins, Stuart Roosa, Edwin Aldrin, Edgar Mitchell, Eugene Cernan, James Irwin, John Young, Frank Borman, and Rusty Schweickart. There’s a variety of opinions, experiences, and anecdotes shared throughout including spiritual experiences (expressed differently by each astronaut), feelings about the missions and the current state of space exploration, dealing with depression after the mission was over, how the missions changed their outlook on life, and even share some funny stories. It’s a lovingly edited together piece by Reinert.
A feature that first appeared in one form on Criterion’s 2000 DVD edition and was carried over to the Blu-ray and now this edition, Paintings From the Moon, offers up paintings by astronaut-turned-artist Al Bean, who paints depictions from the moon missions. Again, it differs from how the original DVD presented it, including a 7-minute video intro by Bean in place of the 4-minute audio recording on the old DVD. Bean goes over how he got into painting and provides a tour of his studio, showing some of his techniques and how he uses actual “souvenirs” from his mission in his work.
The presentation of the actual paintings is a similar to the original DVD: it’s a self-playing slideshow that runs 38-minutes, featuring Bean narrating over the paintings. For the Blu-ray, it was updated, adding in a cool little feature (that Criterion hasn't used since) where you can bring up an on-screen menu displaying the paintings while the feature plays, allowing you to jump to whatever painting. Unfortunately, not all paintings have made it over from the original DVD, some of those paintings replaced with alternate ones that were created after the 2000 DVD’s release. For the paintings that did make it over the same audio description by Bean has been used, and he has recorded *newer* ones for the newer paintings. I’m not sure why Criterion couldn’t port over all of the paintings, but I still suspect that Bean maybe had a say on what made it.
NASA Audio Highlights is another feature that first appeared on the original DVD and includes 21 recordings totaling about 7-minutes. Everything appears to be here, and you get some of the more famous quotes including the classic “blast off”, “one giant step…”, and of course “Houston, we have a problem.” You can play all of the clips or select them one by one from the index. They play over a static image of the moon.
Also pulled over is 3, 2, 1…Blast off!, which is two and a half minutes’ worth of footage from 5 rocket launches. The presentation differs slightly from the original DVD, which offered up each launch as its own chapter. Here, it’s one chapter divided by title screens.
Also here from the original DVD is a subtitle option that identifies astronauts and other members of NASA who appear on screen throughout. This is accessed through the “Setup” screen or by using the “Subtitle” button on your remote. It’s a nice feature but I don’t recommend watching the movie the first time with them as they do sort of ruin the experience, Reinert trying to give the illusion that his is one self-contained mission.
This edition also ports over the 24-page booklet that starts withTerrence Rafferty’s 2009 essay. Reinert’s original essay from the 2000 DVD’s insert yet again appears, the director commenting on the missions, footage, and his intentions for the film.
I’m a bit saddened that Criterion didn’t take the opportunity to maybe update any material, instead choosing just to repress the original Blu-ray for this edition, but it's still a great set of features.
Criterion disappointingly chooses not to update any of the supplements, but the new restoration and final 4K presentation are a knock-out.