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Moonstruck: Al Reinert's Ten Year Space Odyssey

By Jeff Hayward

An astronaut salutes while standing next to the American flag on the moon. From Al Reinert's For All Mankind, the film looks at man's first lunar voyage, as told by the men who traveled there and back.

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu.
'There is a people called the Mericans ?'
he asked. 'There is.'
'They say they have visited the Moon.' 'They have.'
'They are blasphemers.'

Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines.

When Apollo 16 astronaut Charles Duke went to sleep during his first night on the moon in 1972 he had a dream. In it he and mission commander John Young were driving on the moon in their lunar Rover when they discovered tyre tracks in the arid lunar dust. Following the tracks they came upon another Rover in which two astronauts were sitting... Charles Duke, and John Young. They spoke, and the doubles said, "We've been waiting for you for thousands of years."

The lunar dream is a particularly memorable scene from For All Mankind, Al Reinert's new feature length documentary of the Apollo moon missions.

During the four years between December 1968 and November 1972, there were nine manned space flights to the moon. Twenty four men made the journey, the first human beings to leave the planet for another world.

For All Mankind is composed entirely of footage the Apollo crews brought back, blown up to 35mm and accompanied by a stunning, evocative score by Brian Eno. Using excerpts from over 80 hours of taped interviews with the astronauts, the film constructs one composite story of their journeys. As the title suggests, For All Mankind transcends merely being a competent account of the American space effort, or even the Apollo missions. There is no attempt to identify specific flights or individual astronauts. There are no "talking heads'', no interviews with experts, no dramatic recreations. Instead the film explores the ancient and archetypal yearning for travel into space, the longing to open new doors of perception.

Leaving the earth was more important to the men emotionally than going to the moon, says Reinert. "What you do for three days going to the moon is stare at the earth getting smaller and smaller. Every human who has been in outer space has been hypnotized by that. They perceive the earth as this single wondrous entity. It changed all those men and it fascinated me when I heard it."

Technical director David Leitner refers to the end result as a "corrupted documentary."

"In many ways it isn't a documentary because you have to suspend your critical facilities so you can follow it as if it's one moon shot. The basic idea was to create an emotional sense of traveling to the moon, and to do that we really had no choice but to pick and choose from all the Apollo footage, so we could weave it together into one piece."

"In reality I know no such moon trip took place, but I think an ultimate truth is revealed about the whole thing. In description it might seem that such a film might be fraudulent and there are certain ethical questions about this kind of assemblage. But once you've seen the film it reveals a level of truthfulness that is simply self­ evident."

What actually governed the selection of shots had more to do with what interested them personally than anything else, says Reinert. "We are filmmakers, not space buffs, so we simply went for things we liked. That's why I think there is so much humor in it." Much of this humor stems from naturally human responses in an overwhelmingly alien environment—like the second man on the moon reminding himself not to lock the hatch accidentally on the way out.

The ultimate Boy's Life adventure, the men cavort weightlessly about the space craft, tool around the moon's surface in high-tech dune buggies, sing along to flight tapes given to them by Frank Sinatra, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Their comments crackle back to earth with characteristic understatement: "This is really a rock'n'roll ride," says one. "One thing every spacecraft ought to have is a huge window," recommends another.

Still, the astronauts were not without wonder: "You have to pinch yourself, and ask do you really know who you are at this point of time and space," ponders one astronaut looking back at a rapidly receding earth. "There's this beautiful planet moving in a backdrop that's almost beyond conception. What are you looking at, something called space that has no end, time that has no meaning?"

Of the 24 who traveled to the moon, only one remains an astronaut. Interviewed up to 15 years after the event, Reinert feels they now provide a new perspective on their achievements. "They had become new people, changed their lives, and could reflect back. They were much more interesting to learn from years later." Reinert did not have to work hard to ensure the astronauts answered his questions in the present tense. "The memory of it became so powerful they would almost go into a trance. They would be back there, and you could almost see their eyes glaze over."

Reinert, a 41-year-old journalist from Texas, fell into the project while researching a traditional "what-do­ they-think-now" piece for the Texas Monthly in 1979. He discovered six million feet of all-but-forgotten film of the Apollo missions, stored at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in a vault cooled by liquid nitrogen to 150 degrees below zero.

"I was amazed no one had made a movie out of this," says Reinert. "The more you shrink it, the more it looks phony. Television was the worst way to see the moon."

Reinert spent the next ten years raising money and working on the film at an approximately two-to-one ratio, finally receiving a little over one million dollars from private investors. Enlarging the individual 16mm shots to 35mm proved to be an equally Herculean task.

Because the original color reversal stock could not by law be removed from the vaults of the Johnson Space Center, Reinert and Leitner rebuilt a 1938 model optical printer on site, and painstakingly enlarged three or four shots a day, before returning them to their frozen state. The whole process took a year and a half.

NASA itself went to enormous lengths to get some of the footage. In one particular case, NASA engineers wanted to study metal stress at the time of the booster rocket's separation from the second stage. Cameras were mounted at the top of the first stage and the bottom of the second stage and timed to go off automatically at the point of separation 70 miles above the earth. The cameras ran for 90 seconds as the two stages blasted apart, and the film pods were ejected back through the earth's atmosphere, protected by their own heat shields. Once through the outer atmosphere parachutes opened and the pods fell in the Atlantic Ocean. Cargo planes towing huge nets criss-crossed the suspected landing zone hoping to catch the pods in the net before they were lost in the ocean. Out of five attempts, only two succeeded.

The editing was done in various stages, in between forays into the corporate world to raise money. At different stages four editors, Susan Korda, Goran Milutinovic, Eric Jenkins (Altered States) and Chuck Weiss, all worked on the film on a rented editing table in the front room of Reinert 's Texas home.

The film has been criticized in screenings in Canada and West Ger­many for its lack of political context. Leitner says they were determined when making the film not to let it become an overt celebration of an American triumph, and he accepts that the film can be considered politically naive. "It's quite clear that the actual moon shots took place in a particular political climate, in a race between two superpowers. There were political goals that were met by the voyages, as there were military ones. The one scene that really provokes this is the planting of the American flag on the moon, but throughout we wanted to have an overview of the human significance of the accomplishment. "

If making the film has been arduous, finding a distributor has been no easier.

"We actually have a double whammy on us," says Leitner. "Not only is it a documentary, which is all but a death sentence in the theatrical market, but on the East coast to be independent means you are out there by yourself having to do a film for only a million dollars. We've found it really grim out there."

Leitner sees For All Mankind as a litmus test on how nervous distributors really are about taking a chance on a documentary. "If someone had a feature film about Columbus or Captain Cook and it was real footage cut in an entertaining way the film would live forever. Here we have just such a film depicting our greatest journey as a species, and distributors aren't interested in it. I find the whole thing rather bizarre."

Nevertheless, the heavily indebted producers are determined to have For All Mankind out on general theatrical release by the end of the year. A distribution deal has already been negotiated with the Kirch Group in West Germany, and the film recently opened in Berlin.

The reticence of the American film studios clearly flies in the face of audience reactions to the film. It won the award for Best Documentary at the U.S. Film Festival at Park City, and earlier in the year test screenings in Austin, Texas, sold out both nights.

The film has also won the approval of the astronauts themselves. At the Conference of the Organization of Space Explorers in Mexico City several months ago, both American and Soviet astronauts openly applauded the film. One Soviet cosmonaut approached Reinert after the special screening and told him, "you know this film tells my story too."

Now that For All Mankind is finished, is Reinert going to pursue a Hollywood career? "No, my lust for Hollywood has been satisfied. I've never nm a business before, so it's been an education, but raising money is a lot of wear and tear. Being a writer is much simpler." 

Jeff Hayward is a freelance writer who covers the media in England, Australia and the United States.