Thursday, July 29, 2021

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 14

More Space Race Documentaries: 

For All Mankind (1989): This documentary still has a lot to offer, despite being a few decades old now. It’s sort of the prototype of Apollo 11; indeed, Todd Douglas Miller’s 2019 film ends with the credit “For Al and Theo.” Theo is Theo Kamecke, director of Moonwalk One, and Al is Al Reinert, who directed this theatrically-released 1989 documentary. Like Apollo 11, For All Mankind presents a concise trip to the moon and back, but with a few differences from that later film: it too features vintage audio from the era, but also includes modern voiceovers from many of the astronauts, and also it presents a sort of composite of every lunar mission (plus a clip from a Gemini-era spacewalk). In that regard it isn’t nearly the historical document that Apollo 11 is, and actually if you are familiar with the Apollo missions and the various astronauts you could get confused by the whirlwind of assembled footage. For example, Charlie Duke appears in this film as both an astronaut on the moon and a Capcom at Mission Control! Now that’s multitasking! 

Another big difference here, and one of the things that still elevates For All Mankind, is that the majority of the footage is from post-Apollo 11 missions. Whereas most other documentaries just rush through Apollos 12-17 and put the most focus on Apollo 11, here the more famous mission actually gets less screen time. But again, it’s all assembled into a composite of “one” trip, so for example you’ll see Buzz “Apollo 11” Aldrin coming down the ladder for his first steps on the moon, after Neil Armstrong has been out there for several minutes, but the voiceover is courtesy Pete “Apollo 12” Conrad, who’s talking about what it was like to be “second” on the moon. But what Conrad really means is that his was the second trip to the moon, Apollo 12, and he was the third man to walk on the moon. Regardless another thing For All Mankind has going for it is humor; here Conrad reveals that he took a bet with someone that he could say whatever he wanted when he first stepped on the moon, and thus he proclaimed with his first step: “Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me!” 

One thing For All Mankind proves is that the Apollo 11 crew (Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins) was indeed a laconic bunch…even when compared to other astronauts. For the others presented here are downright giddy; these guys hoot and holler, joke constantly, occasionally sing and dance, and as seen above even lampoon famous quotes. In fact one wonders how different space history might’ve gone down if the Apollo 12 crew of Pete Conrad and Alan Bean were the first two men to walk on the moon, not Amrstrong and Aldrin; Conrad and Bean are almost a lunar comedy duo. Whereas the Apollo 11 crew approached their mission with a sort of gravitas, Apollo 12 and the rest mostly just seemed to have a good time. I wondered as I watched how it would’ve been if these later guys were really the first ones to get there, the ones that billions would’ve watched on TV…I figured it could’ve gone either way, with the public either getting more invested in the program, what with how approachable and goofy these astronauts were, or they could’ve thought the entire thing was a waste of money, being taken as a joke by the astronauts. 

The footage itself is incredible, and one of the big selling points of For All Mankind when it was released was that it was the first time many viewers got to see actual moon footage outside of the blurry black and white images that had been originally broadcast on TV. It isn’t a feast for the senses like Apollo 11 is, but it’s still in the same ballpark at least, and the Criterion Blu Ray presents it all in remastered high definition. There’s a lot of great material with the lunar rover just barrelling over the moonscape. The majority of the Mission Control footage comes from the Apollo 17 mission (as seen in The Last Steps, below), but as mentioned footage from various missions is cobbled together. This personally bugged me about the film, but honestly the less you know about the Apollo program the more you’ll enjoy For All Mankind. Another thing that added to my personal confusion was that none of the modern voiceovers are credited; you’ll hear an astronaut talking – and most of them have Southern accents, adding to the confusion – but you’re not given any info on who he is. However having seen a few of these space documentaries now, many of the voices were recognizable to me, in particular Mike Collins, Charlie Duke, Alan Bean, and Gene Cernan. 

Speaking of astronaut voices, one you won’t hear is Neil Armstrong’s. It doesn’t look like he appeared in many of these documentaries; the only one I’ve yet seen is the 2008 Discovery Channel doc When We Left Earth, which features Armstrong as one of the onscreen talking heads. Otherwise director Reinert, who apparently gathered all his audio interviews in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, has assembled at least one crew member from each of the lunar missions, ie Apollo 8 through Apollo 17. Speaking of which two more surprising no-shows are Frank “Apollo 8” Borman and Buzz Aldrin. And neither of the Apollo 14 lunar walkers – Ed Mitchell and Alan Shephard – show up. Mitchell I believe was sort of the black sheep of the space program, given his New Age/UFO interests (see below), which might explain his absence, but I’m surprised that Alan Shepard rarely features in any of these documentaries. I find his story compelling, given that he was the only Mercury Program era astronaut who actually made it onto the moon during Apollo. But the Apollo 14 mission, in all the documentaries I’ve yet seen, is usually relegated to a few super-quick clips. Mitchell did show up in In The Shadow Of The Moon (2007), at least, but given that Shepard died in 1998 I’m not sure if he appears in any of these space documentaries. 

Oh and I’ve gone this far and forgotten to mention the one thing most people talk about when it comes to For All Mankind: Brian Eno’s score. This is the most overtly “sci-fi” of all the space documentaries I’ve yet watched, and really it comes down to Eno’s work. Its ambient, synthy vibe gives everything a science fiction spin, yet at at the same time it sort of reminds me of the music I’d hear in Twin Peaks at the time. That said, there’s also a lot of country music in the film, given that so many of these astronauts were fans of it– Southern boys, remember – and they would take along tapes of country music into space. Personally if I was going into space I’d take along Electric Ladyland. Oh and one of the astronauts also plays “Thus Spake Zarathustra” in the command craft, talking about how ironic it is to be playing the theme from 2001 in space. 

But overall this gives a great view into what the lunar astronauts experienced, and the film pairs well with the later In The Shadow Of The Moon (which I meant to review this time, but given how I’ve gone on and on per usual I’ll save it for the next Random Review). Reinert only uses a little footage from Moonwalk One; even the launch prep material, of the astronauts getting suited up and waiting to leave, is from later missions. After the launch we have the aforementioned spacewalk, aka “EVA,” which actually predates any of the Apollo material – it’s Ed White performing the first American EVA in 1965. Reinert even incorporates the Apollo 13 disaster into the storyline, with an alarm flashing abruptly on the soundtrack courtesy some post-production audio. Unlike reality though, the error is quickly fixed and the composite lunar mission continues on. And speaking of multitasking, Jim “Apollo 13” Lovell also appears as both an astronaut and in Mission Control. The lunar material gets a lot of screentime, but Reinert skips over the return material, basically ending the film with a quick clip of the descent parachutes and the mandatory flashback to President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in 1962. Throughout there is unexpected stuff, likely not seen anywhere else, like the fires of Bedouin desert tribes in the Sahara, glimpsed through the cockpit window as the ship orbits the Earth, or a part on the moon where one of the astronauts loses his footing as he walks and totally wipes out into the lunar dust. 

The “modern” audio from the various astronauts adds an extra layer to the film, giving us their thoughts. Cernan as usual stands out; his gift for gab and making “profound statements” must’ve been a godsend for these documentary directors. Reinert features long clips of Cernan’s voiceover, particularly his “The stars are my home” monologue which closes the film. Cernan’s comments also graced the closing credits of In The Shadow Of The Moon, by the way – and in fact even the title of that film was derived from one of his comments. But not always knowing who is talking does rob For All Mankind of a little emotional connection. That said, Reinert does a great job of showing how lonely the command capsule pilots could become when their two fellow crewman would descend to the moon, leaving the pilots to circle the moon alone for the next few days; Neil Armstrong’s “See ya later” to Mike Collins as Eagle breaks off from Columbia particularly comes off as touching in this regard – and also this is the only documentary where I’ve heard this audio footage. A cool thing about watching all these space docs is that you see and hear different stuff in each. 

The Last Steps (2016) Three years before the incredible Apollo 11, director Todd Douglas Miller released this mini-documentary, again for CNN films. Whereas Apollo 11 documents the first moon landing, this one documents the last, in December of 1972. The Last Steps follows the same format as the later film, using archival film (remastered in high definition) and audio footage to tell the story with no modern intrusions. And once again Matt Morton provides the score, making this come off like a proto-Apollo 11. It isn’t nearly as epic, but then it’s only 25 minutes long. This was the last Apollo launch; budget cuts cancelled any more moon landings, and Apollo 17 would be the last lunar landing: Commander Gene Cernan (who had also commanded Apollo 10), Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt, and Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans. Cernan was the only one I was familiar with, given that he’s appeared in almost every space documentary I’ve yet watched. He’s quickly become one of my favorite astronauts…he has this super-serious sort of vibe, always making these “profound” statements, but at heart comes off like a fun-loving goofball. He’s like the kind of character Patrick Swayze would play, if that makes any sense. 

Anyway, it’s late ’72 now, and first thing one notices is that things have gotten a bit grungier: the hair is longer, the sideburns are thicker, the collars are more severe. Whereas Mission Control in Apollo 11 still had that natty ‘60s look, it’s replaced here with dudes sporting massive ‘staches, smoking pipes, and just in general looking like hairy freaks. Oh and speaking of Mission Control, there’s a brief clip of Jim “Apollo 8 and Apollo 13” Lovell sitting in there; again, much of this footage, as well as the ensuing lunar footage, is also seen in For All Mankind. Miller opens the documentary with some rare pre-flight PR material from Cernan, talking directly to the camera and explaining that Apollo 17 is not the “end” of space travel, just of the Apollo Program. How little did he know… From there we go to the midnight launch of the Saturn V rocket, which turned night to day – this was the launch Tom Wolfe was hired by Rolling Stone to write about, the ensuing story which became the kernel for The Right Stuff (see below). 

The launch material is thrilling, Morton’s music again providing a great soundtrack. Miller uses still photography at times, and when the ship gets to the moon we also have video – by this time NASA was able to shoot color video on the moon, though I don’t believe any of it was broadcast on television at the time. The public had pretty much grown bored with the whole space race thing, which makes you feel sort of sorry for Cernan and crew. I mean, they were still risking their lives, same as the Apollo 11 crew did, but none of their names would be cemented in history like Neil Armstrong’s was. Oh and speaking of which, it’s funny to see how blas√© these moon landings had become; when Cernan and Schmitt land “Challenger” on the moon, Cernan yells, “We is here! Man, is we here!,” and the Capcom says, “Roger, Challenger, that’s super!” So much for momentous occasions. But then, Cernan and Schmitt reveal themselves to be fun-loving goofs of the highest order, gamboling across the lunar landscape like little kids on the playground, cracking jokes, and even breaking into song. 

But there is also a sense of sadness about it, as everyone involved – both the astronauts then and Miller and his crew now – knew that this was to be it for the moon landings. Cernan almost seems desperately insistent that this is not the end in his opening and closing PR interview, that the exploration of space will continue. But it was not to be – and manned space exploration still hasn’t reached the extent of the Apollo Program. As for Morton’s score, you can hear some precursors to his work on Apollo 11, though The Last Steps has a bit more of a tribal feel at times, which is nice. Morton too seems to tap into the elegiac vibe of this final Apollo mission; in the staging sequence where the rockets drop off in the blackness of space, the music is almost mournful: this will be the last time a Saturn rocket heads for the moon. 

Overall The Last Steps is a concise, entertaining mini-doc that really paves the way for what Miller would accomplish on a grander scale in Apollo 11. A lot of the footage here – especially the Mission Conrol sequences – was seen previously in For All Mankind, but here it’s shown in its proper context. Currently The Last Steps can be viewed for free on Vimeo; personally I think it should be released on a special Blu Ray with Apollo 11 and Apollo 11: Quarantine. Actually what I really think is that Smith should do a documentary for every one of the Apollo lunar missions! 


Tom Wolfe, “Post-Orbital Remorse” (1973): Here’s an admission: I’ve never read or seen The Right Stuff. (I’ve never even seen Apollo 13or Jaws!) Several years ago I was on this crazy New Journalism kick and even then I never read Wolfe’s famous book, even though I read many other books by him. The reason was, I knew The Right Stuff focused on the earliest days of the space race, and indeed spent the majority of its opening sequences even before that, with Chuck Yeager in the ‘40s. I wanted to read about stuff from later on, at least the Gemini Program but especially Apollo. I also knew that Wolfe had originally planned to write about all three of these programs, but after spending so long on just Mercury his wife told him that he was finished with the project(!). So The Right Stuff turned out to be Wolfe’s only book on the subject, ostensibly about the Mercury Program but as mentioned taking a long time to even get there, with a lot of ‘40s test pilot stuff. 

Anyway, you often read that The Right Stuff started life as an article Wolfe wrote for Rolling Stone. I was under the impression that The Right Stuff was just a fleshed-out version of that original article, which ran in four issues of the magazine in early 1973. However this was not the case: “Post-Orbital Remorse,” the title of the series of articles, actually encompasses the entire space program up to 1972. Wolfe was hired by Jann Werner to cover Apollo 17 (see above), and while gathering material from the various astronauts at the launch he cottoned to the idea of telling the entire story. Here we can see where a lot of The Right Stuff probably came from; the article is written in this omniscient “collective voice of the astronauts,” telling “Tom” about their test pilot origins and their quest to be at the pinnacle of “the Right Stuff.” 

Even though this long article covers the entire program, you can tell Wolfe’s heart is already with the earliest days; so much of “Post-Orbital Remorse” concerns the test pilot beginnings and the Mercury Program – with of course the usual detours expected of Wolfe’s new journalism. He doesn’t touch on Gemini much, and surprisingly doesn’t even talk much about Apollo 11, but he does get into some of the other lunar flights, among them Apollo 8 (where he details Frank Borman’s bout of stomach flu). As for Apollo 17, all Wolfe really talks about is the launch, then in a later part he lampoons commander Gene Cernan’s moment of “the higher bullshit” when Cernan starts thanking countless people for the success of Apollo at a press conference. Here Wolfe goes into a humorous fantasy sequence in which a janitor pushes Cernan off stage and starts taking credit for the mission’s success. We also get some detail on the “postal flap” that plagued the Apollo 15 mission, and also a focus on Edgar Mitchell, who was forever after maligned for his New Age ESP experiments on Apollo 14; Wolfe, in that “voice of the astronauts,” ponders over Mitchell, as he has “the Rightest Stuff” of them all, what with his incredible fighter pilot and test pilot background, yet he too was humbled by his trip to the moon. 

You can also see why Wolfe titled his later book The Right Stuff, as that’s the phrase most often repeated here. The titular “Post-Orbital Remorse” only factors sporadically, and has to do with the comedown the astronauts experience after achieving the “pinnacle of the Right Stuff,” ie going to the moon or into space and then coming back to…what? As Wolfe details, there’s nowhere left to go, other than into religion (as some of the astronauts did, which Wolfe also details) or mysticism (like Mitchell) or politics (like John Glenn) or “an old-fashioned breakdown” (like Buzz Aldrin). Speaking of which, Wolfe also mentions a Volkswagen TV ad Buzz did at the time, which I’d never heard of before: you can see it on Youtube. Also Wolfe discusses things that were about to happen, like how Deke Slayton, a Mercury astronaut who was grounded due to a minor heart issue: Wolfe tells us that Deke got surgery, the issue fixed, and will soon “go up” in Skylab, which Slayton in fact did. Also Wolfe of course was unaware of stuff further in the future; he tells us that John Glenn’s first voyage into space was so magnificent to the public that New York cops broke into tears at Glenn’s parade, and Glenn was so famous NASA couldn’t let him “go up” anymore…meanwhile, Glenn did return to space, at the age of 77 in 1998. 

I don’t believe “Post-Orbital Remorse” has ever been reprinted. But someone by the name Tom Rednour on the collectSPACE forum scanned the entire series of articles onto a 24-page PDF and uploaded it here, so check it out if you’re interested.

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