Monday, March 29, 2010

For All Mankind (1989)

John F. Kennedy certainly understood Frederick Jackson Turner, whose "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" famously concludes,
From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance ... and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted ... . The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom ... . Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. and ... the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise. ... And now, ... the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.
Kennedy, however, wanted no part of a closed frontier, at his inauguration announcing, "We stand on the edge of a New Frontier--the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams, a frontier of unknown opportunities and beliefs in peril. Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space ..." A little later in the decade Capt. Kirk called it the "final" one--"a new sea," as Kennedy put it--words Al Reinart uses to open and close his impressionistic documentary of the Apollo missions--"because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all mankind."

For All Mankind knows that space is not only a frontier but, as the re-release posters for 2001 announced, "the ultimate trip": Renart's film looks on silently as some of the most amazing things occur, and listens carefully to every sappy/sentimental/transcendent word the Apollo astronauts had to say. The images are at once familiar and re-imagined--as a shared experience, a "restless, nervous energy" that is much of what Turner had to say, and more: humbled in the face of silent travel at 25,000 miles an hour, the Moon in the little window looking back in, the sight of the lunar lander as the astronauts rover back, the knowledge that the Earth is "this thing out here ... that's alive."

Reinart splices together the various missions, leaving us with an idea--or at least a feeling--but not history, exactly. Or maybe the distilled moonshine of history, crystal clear in a mason jar, a warm kick under cold stars.

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