Al Reinert's square astronauts
3 min read

Al Reinert's square astronauts

For All Mankind (1989) is a documentary about how we sent the world's most boring men to the moon. Al Reinert's film – not to be confused with the modern Apple TV show – is made up entirely of vintage footage, voiced over with astronaut interviews. It makes a point of its verisimilitude. It is also a work of blatant fiction. The Apollo missions are edited together so as to resemble one long mission: the newness of 7, the one-small-step ecstacy of 11, the disasters of 13, the scientific triumphs of 16 and 17. The astronauts blur together from shot to shot, various white guys on a road trip, probably in smaller groups but maybe all at once.

The film never pretends that this is what really happened, but its point is clear. Astronauts are interchangeable, their presence arbitrary, their insights mostly inane. What's happening is a collective, anonymous project. In light of the patriotism and individual heroism inherent in most discussions of moon missions, this is a wildly radical framing.

The astronauts who speak throughout the film are unidentified. The captioning does give them away, but I wasn't paying much attention to it, so I was surprised to learn that Reinert did interview some of the more sensitive and literary astronauts, like Collins and Lovell; he just doesn't cut the film to make them sound smart. Instead, the narrators all sound like athletes interviewed postgame. Onscreen, they indulge in cringy dad jokes, make small talk about food, do endless zero-g flips that emphasize their asses, make clipped remarks about the mission. When an astronaut is allowed an insight, it's about his own smallness. Multiple narrators observe upon entering Earth orbit that they've realized how arbitrary it was that they were chosen for this, or that their lives now seem tiny, or that the frustration of this experience is in the impossibility of taking it all in.

Another of Reinert's quiet arguments is that the Sixties had arrived at NASA, but in a heavily filtered, awkward way. Mission Control is full of guys in loud shirts, short-sleeved engineer psychedelia; they smoke pipes, cigars, and cigarettes as if defending against the forces of weed. It's difficult to imagine earlier groups of astronauts talking about, or even feeling, a sense of smallness before the universe. The Apollo astronauts were, I can't emphasize enough, the squarest men alive. They existed in a bubble of training and a rush of salutes, far from the pain and struggle of the American 1960s. It tells in their jokes – the film contains the full clip of David Scott dropping the feather and hammer on the moon to "test" Galileo's theory, and he has the excruciating timing of a man who's never been interrupted. Yet even the astronauts seem to be catching the zeitgeist a little. They've seen, and can reference, 2001: A Space Odyssey. They're obviously not going to turn on and drop out, but they've let the Sixties hand some literature through the door before hastily closing it.

Reinert's vision also calls back to 2001, drawing on that film's up-to-the-minute portrayal of astronauts: Kubrick's spacemen are just as square as the real ones, although they've moved a step up the evolutionary ladder from "making TV" to "watching TV about themselves." The connection of space with television is one that I'm ashamed to say I've never really thought about, but the astronauts were sent up there, in no insignificant part, to make a TV show. Sometimes it's a proto-reality show: all that snacking and spinning and listening to music (Ken Mattingly is self-deprecating about liking classical, instead of country like the other guys). Sometimes, of course, it's a tense drama with enormous stakes. Like a work of Italian neorealism, the Apollo missions use amateur actors to startling effect. The astronauts' very boringness makes their unfurling moments of insight all the more startling. Their refrigerated test-pilot affect makes the actual landing surreal.

These days, I know, a lot of people believe the moon landings didn't happen. They don't look real on camera; the scale feels weird, the footage too low-res, the light of the sun looks like studio light. It's an embarrassing conspiracy theory, but I see the logic: it was terrible TV, you can't stay in the moment, you can't suspend disbelief. Landing on the moon was bad TV, and For All Mankind, in pointing this out, becomes a good movie. It's beautiful, thoughtful, often excruciating to watch, and passionate about its visible artifice. The moon landings were real, but television is fake, and these things – in the hands of these athletic nerds whom we ordered to become filmmakers – exist in permanent tension whenever we tell the story.