New York Times MARCH 16, 1990 - by Caryn James


Three decades after American space travel began, some people remain amazed at this seemingly impossible accomplishment, while many others regard the idea of men on the Moon with calm, jaded acceptance. It is, after all, a scientific achievement that a generation has grown up taking for granted. For All Mankind, a documentary compiled from NASA film of the nine manned flights that went to the moon between 1968 and 1972, re-creates the sense of immensity involved in space travel: the grandeur of its ambition, the complexity of its physical details, the sheer infinity of space.

Al Reinert, a contributing editor to Texas Monthly and a first-time film director, has taken the NASA film and blown it up to thirty-five-millimetre size, providing clarity and scope not available on television news. Splicing scenes from the various flights, he creates a composite mission to the moon, which begins with astronauts testing their spacesuits and ends with a capsule parachuting into the ocean on the return. The narration, compiled from NASA's audio tapes of the astronauts and from Mr. Reinert's own interviews, creates a composite astronaut as well. What emerges is an amazingly fresh visual immersion in space, and a film that works far better when dealing with inanimate objects than with humans.

Mr. Reinert changes points of view so smoothly and quickly that he evokes an omniscient sense of being everywhere at once, of being part of space itself. Now we are looking out from the elevator that carries the astronauts up the side of the huge booster rocket to their space capsule; now we are outside, watching that small elevator's slow climb. We see a close-up of the rocket wrenching itself away from the supporting scaffolding, then move back to see a huge orange flame shooting across the sky with shocking power.

Every scene from space reminds us of how earthbound our ordinary vision is. Earth, seen from a great distance, forms a curving outline that splits the movie screen; on the left is a man tethered to his space capsule, two shadowy shapes floating against the darkness. But when a segment of Earth fills the screen, it comes to resemble a detail from a Japanese landscape painting, full of swirling brown, blue and silver shapes. Though the film includes familiar images of white-suited men hopping around the Moon, it is best when it offers rarer visions, like the shadow the three-legged spacecraft casts as it lands on the Moon's dusty grey surface.

While the NASA film is Mr. Reinert's greatest advantage, the narrative has the unrealistic, upbeat sound of publicity material. The astronauts repeat that they are part of a whole, "the representative of humanity," as one of them says. But it is naive, so many years after Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff pierced the astronauts' squeaky-clean image forever, to ignore their competitiveness, egos and simply their individual personalities. And though the film is dedicated to Soviet and American astronauts who have died in space, (including the Challenger crew), it is usually blind to the dangers of space travel.

The narrative's single enlightening moment occurs when one astronaut orbits the Moon while his two colleagues scamper around its surface. He is disappointed not to be with them, he says, and casually mentions that coming back alone is part of their training.

It's not a bad idea to ignore the narration in For All Mankind, which opens today at the 57th Street Playhouse, the better to appreciate its astonishing visual spectacle.


For All Mankind, produced and directed by Al Reinert; produced by Betsy Broyles Breier; technical director and co-producer, David W. Leitner; edited by Susan Korda; music by Brian Eno, Roger Eno and Dan Lanois; released by Apollo Releasing. At 57th Street Playhouse, 110 West 57th Street. Running time: eighty-seven minutes. This film has no rating.

Narrators: James A. Lovell Jr., Russell L. Schweickart, Eugene A. Cernan, Michael Collins, Charles Conrad Jr., Richard F. Gordon Jr., Alan L. Bean, John L. Swigert Jr., Stuart A. Roosa, James B. Irwin, T. Kenneth Mattingly, Charles M. Duke Jr. and Harrison H. Schmitt