For All Mankind

Ben Travers
All images courtesy of Criterion Collection

One wonders, when watching Al Reinert’s historic 1989 documentary on space travel, what happened to the relevance it tries so desperately to depict.

For All Mankind

Director: Al Reinert
Cast: Jim Lovell, Russell Schweickart, Eugene Cernan, Michael Collins, Charles Conrad, Richard Gordon, Alan Bean, Jack Swigert, Stuart Roosa, James Irwin
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: not rated
Year: 1989
US DVD release date: 2009-07-14

Readers may be interested in a different take on the validity of NASA in these times in this review of Orbiter.

When President John F. Kennedy spoke of conquering challenges and discovering new worlds through the NASA space program in the early ‘60s, his words commanded a sense of determination and patriotism. He believed the moon missions would aid America in ways we couldn’t imagine.

And while President Kennedy was undoubtedly correct in his attitude and assertions during the global space race, it is now a new millennium. New goals have been set along with new priorities when it comes to taxpayers’ money. The good men and women at NASA have concocted plenty of plans for space travel in the 21st century (a moon base, humans on Mars), but save for the International Space Station, none have come close to fruition.

Granted, some of the more expensive endeavors may have been discarded merely because of funding cuts and more immediate concerns for Earth’s inhabitants. Nevertheless, the film fails to elucidate any feelings of loss regarding the lack of recent extraterrestrial explorations.

In 1989, when For All Mankind was released, the Challenger disaster was still fresh in people’s minds and the American peoples’ sense of patriotism was as strong as the economy. Forty years after the first moon landing, Americans have just slogged through eight years of confusion in the oval office and are now facing the trying task of escaping a global recession.

With this in mind, one wonders, when watching Al Reinert’s historic1989 documentary on space travel, what happened to the relevance it tries so desperately to depict.

That said, the film is far from inept. In fact, formally it’s a work of art befitting the historical content its relating. The team at the Criterion Collection has done another outstanding job with its brand new digital transfer. All of the footage is taken straight from NASA, and despite the outdated equipment used during the missions; the visuals presented here are breathtaking. The sound (presented in Dolby Digital 5.1) is also quite good, even if a few mumbled communications require the use of subtitles.

Outside of these formal specifications, however, For All Mankind comes up far short of its potential to make a valid point regarding other-worldly adventure. For some viewers, it may serve as a reminder that there’s more out there than Earthly matters. But for others it will just prove a dreadfully dull, slightly repetitive tale that was much more entertaining, visually stunning, and informative in historically grounded narratives. The film proves frustrating, clocking in at just 80-minutes, in its resistance of any kind of new or unknown information.

In most narrative cinema, the filmmakers try to convince the audience of the events’ accuracy by providing explanations for every aftermath. In For All Mankind, the footage is real and thus apparently warrants no elucidation for any of the amazing events. This theory is simply untrue.

Truth can be, and usually is, stranger than fiction. The audience still needs the “how” to befit the “why”. Their curiosity needs to be quenched. Here, it’s merely dampened. Instead of providing details for how the astronauts survived in zero gravity or what sort of equipment was designed to help them live in space for days on end, we get to watch the astronauts spin a tape recorder again and again and again.

While in 1989 it was certainly cool to see “what really happened” during the moon missions, this is clearly dated, viewers these days want more than just the pictures. I’d have liked to hear some comparisons about space technology, then and now, and to learn more about the now seeming ‘primitive” processes astronauts had to go through to complete each phase of the mission.

Props must be given for following the cinematic standby adage “show, don’t tell”, but a filmmaker (especially a documentary filmmaker) can only take that method so far without leaving out a few fascinating details.

Really, the only viewers who will finish watching For All Mankind and be left without a dozen or more questions rattling around in their heads are the families and friends of the astronauts and NASA officials who starred in the picture (or tech junkies who already know everything there is to know about space exploration). With the ‘60s footage and fixed camera angles, the whole picture has a “home movies” feel to it, but without your Dad sitting next to you and explaining what’s going on as you watch.

The narrators wax philosophical about what it feels like to be in space while their past selves joke around like schoolchildren once they get to the moon’s surface. It’s all very sporadic with the only structure being provided by the three-step process of traveling to the moon (take off, land, and come home). Space nuts may find a few nuggets of information to grasp onto, and it certainly serves perfectly as documentation for a historic event, but For All Mankind doesn’t leave the mark it should or could with those of us with an average level of intrigue for the heavenly body over our heads.

However, in case more than just relatives fall in love with the film, the good people at Criterion have provided a bounty of special features on this single disc release. An Accidental Gift: The Making of ‘For All Mankind’ examines the director’s dedication to the project, and, at more than 30-minutes in length, it tests the audience’s dedication as well.

In case the viewer wanted to hear more ramblings from the film’s narrators, Reinert has also included a few on-camera interviews with a few of the pilots in the segment entitled On Camera. The nostalgia factor is upped with the inclusion of 21 audio highlights many Americans heard on the radio during the space race. These sound clips are actually fairly interesting and a pretty big bonus for space fans who might want to have them at an arm’s reach for years to come.

Paintings From the Moon is an oddly formatted 30-minute segment detailing the work of astronaut post-missions Alan Bean when he took up painting. Bean provides commentary on each entry in his gallery of paintings as it is displayed onscreen. Unfortunately, the artist’s work dwells too heavily on the details instead of the ideas behind each piece that Bean chooses to explain verbally.

There’s also a booklet included with essays from film critic Terrence Reafferty and director/producer Reinert.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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