A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon, 1969
Today in 1969, while schoolchildren the world over hugged their knees while watching, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon. Armstrong and Aldrin had landed just after 8.00pm UTC (aka GMT) and, having completed the hardest part of the mission without major mishap, then decided to bring forward the planned moonwalk. Just over six hours later they were ready to go. The Eagle, the lunar module, was depressurised, the door was opened and Armstrong climbed down the ladder to become the first man on the Moon. Armstrong delivered his “that’s one giant step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” speech, and 20 minutes later Buzz Aldrin joined him. They unveiled a plaque, erected the flag of the United States, collected a soil sample, took photos of the lunar module for the scientists back home, spoke to President Nixon, deployed instruments including a seismograph, took rock samples and went for exploratory walks. Armstrong and Aldrin’s moonwalk lasted around two and a half hours.
For All Mankind (1989, dir: Al Reinert)
A plaque left behind on one of the legs of the lunar module the Eagle reads “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969AD. We came in peace for all mankind.” So many aspects of that sentence now seem slightly off – the word “men” (too gendered), the use of “upon” (too formal), and “AD” (too Christian). But the sentiment is still thrilling and so is Al Reinert’s film, a composite “from the Earth to the Moon” flight cut together from Nasa footage of the missions Apollo 8-17. Over the images is a commentary, voiced by the various astronauts who manned (sorry) the flights – Jim Lovell, Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Jack Swigert and various others, all names familiar to anyone who grew up in the Apollo era. Alongside them Reinert dubs in some playback from Houston, adding vital atmosphere, plus a waft of music, not too intrusive, ambient stuff by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
Against the enormity of what Nasa achieved is the humility of the men, who have the “aw shucks” quality you find in the nicest Americans – these are good natured, fun guys with enquiring minds and lively spirits. It’s the little touches that humanise it – scenes of astronauts shaving, talking about listening to Merle Haggard and Frank Sinatra in deep space. One of them liked the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Meanwhile, back at base, is a cadre of guys who also became familiar, in short sleeved white shirts, with similar buzz cuts, black-framed spectacles, quite a few smoking – the men who made it happen.
Those familiar with the grainy “one small step” footage that gets served up on TV routinely will be astounded by the quality of the footage Reinert has unearthed. At one point an astronaut talks about being able to see from space the campfires lit by desert nomads. And there they are, pinpricks of light against an inky black. Against images such as these Reinert will drop in a thoughtful comment from one of the astronauts. And it’s somewhere around here that it becomes clear that Reinert’s skills don’t stop at research. He’s also a skilful editor; the unnecessary cut out, just enough left in for us to get an appreciation of what’s going on. The result is a punchy, lean narrative. And because Reinert credits us with knowing what a rocket stage is, there is no explanation of what is happening as one drops away, leaving us to watch as it goes. But at key moments – going into Moon orbit, landing – we are offered one, which only makes what’s happening more exciting. With all its acronyms and militaristic jargon – “You are Go for TLI” [Trans-Lunar Injection] – how brutish and technologically advanced it all looked back then. But how fragile and wondrous it all looks in Reinert’s film. And how brave those guys.
- A brilliant documentary
- Superb quality footage of all aspects of space flight, take-off to splashdown
- Last astronaut on the Moon Gene Cernan on the commentary track
- A reminder of the achievement
© Steve Morrissey 2014