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For All Mankind - Red Moon + He Built the Saturn V + Nixon's Women - Review

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For All Mankind 1.01"Red Moon"

One of the most ambitious of Apple’s ambitious slate of television shows, For All Mankind joins the host of space films that have come out in the last few years, like First Man, Gravity, The Martian and most recently Ad Astra. The alternate history spin sees this show fit in line more with The Man in the High Castle than say, something like Apollo 11, a factual documentary about the once-in a lifetime experience. The series itself opens with the Russians landing on the moon, shocking America whose intelligence had them pegged as 90 or 80% certain that they were still on course to see Apollo 12 land on the moon. The American people are reeling and completely shocked not unlike Pearl Harbour, with the President looking for someone to blame, and congressional hearings are looking for someone to blame.

Using archive footage mixed in with doctored quotes from an alternate Nixon on answering machines, For All Mankind looks at the personal fallout that it had on the astronauts of future Apollo projects. Specifically, Joel Kinnaman’s Ed Baldwin, who, in a fit of anger and resentment after learning the truth, confesses to a reporter in a bar that he was angry at NASA not being as daring as they could have been. When the report is naturally turned into a major article, the backlash is felt fast and quick. Ed is in trouble and booted off Apollo 15, battling consequences for the pilot’s code, and is threatened to be sent to what essentially boils down to the equivalent of Siberia but behind a desk. This whole power play from legendary creator Ronald D. Moore (Outlander, Battlestar Galactica, Deep Space Nine) matches the intensity of the early days of Battlestar but also features the workplace-like drama that made shows like Manhattan, Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire work well, despite having more world building in its first episode than you could shake a fist at, For All Mankind kept me hooked all the way.

Shantel VanSanten is equally terrific in the supporting role as Ed's husband, Karen. Karen lashes out at Ed when she finds out that all it took for him to break the pilot’s code is a couple of drinks at a bar, and is annoyed that the code that he’s used not to tell her about his work is broken so easily. There’s clear friction between the couple right from the start, but the friction is not unique to them – it’s everywhere. The entire United States is in a sense of jeopardy beyond what it’s been used to in a while. It’s a country that is used to winning and used to coming out on top, but brought low, the knives start to come out. Ed faces immediate backlash when he returns to work the following morning after the news report comes out as he made the whole agency look bad (coming this close to bringing Apollo 10 to the ground, only operating as a test run); but NASA is placing faith in Apollo 11, rushing it forward in an aim to appease both the Government and the press.

The space landing has inspired so many people and it is interesting to see what happens when the Russians come out on top. A Mexican family is gathered around watching the Moon Landing at the start of the film, and the mother, despite being ill, wants to stay up for it with her daughter Aledia so she can see an event that she’ll never forget. It's an event that's a catastrophic failure for the Americans, who lose what was a massive propaganda boost, with the Nixon administration not committing to any future launches as things stand. Indeed, The hinges of any future Apollo missions hinge on Apollo 11 finding its mark, with the crew Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins heading into space earlier than planned despite the lunar cycles not being ready. It’s a recipe for disaster and even with the optimistic, funky use of The Isley Brothers' It’s Your Thing (featured oh so spectacularly in Steven Soderbergh’s criminally underrated Out of Sight), you get a sense of unease. Just because Armstrong was the first man on the moon in our timeline; doesn’t mean that a NASA scrambling for a response will repeat the same triumph. The fireball that resulted in deaths of past astronauts is brought up by Ed as a way of foreshadowing what is to come, keeping audiences’ unease with Moore replicating that tension so brilliantly that made 33 such a strong pilot.

Now the mission is no longer about being first, it’s about doing one better than the Russians. Apollo 11 has even higher stakes than before; if they fail to put a man on the moon then the space project will be abandoned and the future of the space race will belong to the Russians. But after an inspiring speech that doesn’t look out of place in the moon landing biopics that this film is inspired by, Kennedy Launch Control makes it clear that if Apollo 11 succeeds then the Moon will not be their sole objective, they will reach further to the stars, to the solar system and beyond – answering the question whether or not they are alone in the universe. Eventually, and after a period of delay, Apollo 11 hits its mark, even though it’s not one of Neil Armstrong’s finest landings – any landing that he walks away from is a good one.

The agency believes that Ed should make a denial when Karen is told in person, and if he does so he could be reinstated on Apollo 15. But Karen believes it’s not as simple as that; Ed would never get up and lie. His country, his integrity and duty matters to him. His character very much reminds me of the Armstrong that Ryan Gosling played so well in First Man, committed to the cause just facing an even bigger setback than before, and it's interesting to see how that perception of Armstrong fits into the background in comparison to Ed, who is less and less involved in the episodes as they go along.

The show has a stylish command of musical numbers with a bevy of cool 1960s songs to pick from that feel era appropriate. For All Mankind has a big budget, good cinematography and stakes to go with it. As a show, it’s something that will either appeal to audiences or they’ll find boring, but it does succeed in sticking the landing at least for me, with one of the main reasons presumably being because I’m a massive fan of shows like Manhattan and The Man in the High Castle. It scratches that itch perfectly based on that first episode and sets up a really strong pilot with bags of potential.

The show itself requires audiences to be in tune with the 1960s and the space race which I very much am given that I did my Undergraduate History dissertation on the subject. It’s something that interests me and Ronald D. Moore shows are never less than watchable. Commanding your attention from the word go with a slow and steady burn, For All Mankind feels very much like a reflection on Apple’s entry into the streaming service wars, a mighty juggernaut facing tough competition and rushing to catch up. Like Apple+ itself, time will tell whether the series’ commitment pays off. Like the centrepiece speech it’s not quite as inspiring as the real-life event For All Mankind borrows its history on, but it has its moments and shines when it dares takes the most risks and avoids the trappings of normal television.

For All Mankind 1.02 “He Built the Saturn V

He Built the Saturn V starts with an audacious attempt to get Apollo 11 back into orbit. The pre-credits title sequences have an advantage over what many retellings of the Moon Landings don’t, we’re in fully blown science fiction territory here where anything could happen. The difference between For All Mankind and The Man in the High Castle is that whilst The Man in the High Castle is also alternate history, it takes place very much after the Nazis won World War 2. Here, For All Mankind sees history happening anew before our eyes, even safe bets like Neil Armstrong returning home from the Moon are considered risky now. I do admire For All Mankind moving quickly over of the events of Armstrong’s Landing rather than spending too much time on it, as it’s a clear statement of intent that the series has bigger things in mind in terms of the space race.

By doing this, the series immediately pushes the prospect of ramping the Cold War up to the next level, the moon, rather than starting to wind it down. Nixon wants a military base in space before the Russians, adamant that he will not lose again. However; Real-life director Wernher von Braun is against the wishes of Nixon, not wanting to see another project of his be turned into a plaything for soldiers to wage war despite the fact that Nixon will throw money at von Braun to get this done.

Ed is taking the fallout from desk duty hard two months after Armstrong’s Moon Landing. He wants to be back on Apollo 15 but will not be whilst Braun is in charge, not knowing that Nixon is looking for ways to fire an un-fireable man, beloved by the country. Meanwhile, Ed's drinking puts a strain on his marriage when his affair is discovered by his wife over the telephone, who is at home with the kids whilst his work sees him elsewhere. Ed's self-destructive nature is costing him both at work and at home, and unless something huge happens soon things are going to get even worse before they get better. Something like von Braun retiring, which he has expressed an interest in doing so even before the wolves come knocking at his door. Von Braun uses his final days to recommend Margo for a promotion, with the two having a shared history in the past. It is here where Margo is interrogated by her interviewer - real life figure Gene Kranz, who wants to know that she doesn’t plan on having children immediately after her new job - adopting a very 1950s attitude that she has to push back and fight against. Margo’s storyline, at the moment, is instantly ten times more appealing than Ed's, with Wrenn Schmidt doing a fantastic job at conveying Margo’s nervousness and frustration at Gene. von Braun eventually breaks the news to Margo that she’s the first woman in the mission control team, reinforcing the friendship that the two share which has been one of the series’ most successful relationship dynamics before things go horribly wrong.

For All Mankind continues to keep things personal and a switch away from the male perspective for much of this episode gives the series a breath of fresh air. Karen breaks down when she tells Tracy that she heard the woman in Edward’s room having a shower, and Tracy in turn tells her that her husband’s not even trying anymore. It’s an emotional scene, with both actors, VanSanten and Sarah Jones putting in impeccable performances, with Jones being more reigned in than Staten, but both displaying a quiet fury.

When the story switches back to Ed once again his arc improves this time as he’s forced to live with the consequences of his actions, being approached by the President’s men who want him to be involved with the program and flip on von Braun. Wanting nothing more than to go to space but conflicted with his dilemma, it’s a difficult decision for von Braun to face which I think Kinnaman sells. In hearings, Ed is interrogated, and asked whether or not if von Braun was the sole man responsible for letting Ed's mission land in space, designed to be answered with a yes. Yet Ed counters; claiming it’s not that simple. On the ground, yes it was von Braun’s call, but in lunar orbit, Ed claims he knew he could bring the ship to the surface and hesitated at the last possible minute.

After launch, Ed states, that despite the mission intentions, it was his call on board the ship. Interspaced with flashbacks to the mission, it’s an effective scene that gets inside Ed's head both in the past and present. Ed says that if they said that they could have landed, Gene would have backed him. It’s here that the music is reminiscent of the likes of Justin Hurwitz’ First Man score or Brian/Roger Eno’s tracks for the same-named documentary For All Mankind, my all-time favourite documentary, with Ed making his statement for the court – it was his call, and no-one else’s. This committee was looking for somebody to blame, Ed says, proud enough to admit that it’s his fault he lost the moon, accepting the weight of responsibilities on his shoulder – not Armstrong’s or von Braun’s.

Naturally, Gordo, Ed’s partner on the mission, is angry at Ed's decision to act on his own, wanting to have been standing beside him at the media parades. Ed tells Gordo he resigned after being offered a job back in Apollo 15 by Deke, whilst von Braun’s background speechless promise that NASA will be exploring the solar system looking at the stars and beyond, having greater ambitions than the Moon. Nixon’s stooges predictably don’t take this well, as Ed is right – they want someone to blame and the President loathes the man who refused him, bringing in Kissinger to get some dirt on von Braun. The battle between stopping at the moon or launching further is on the line, and the Government won’t see the results go against them. Unlike the Soviets, von Braun gives an emotionally charged speech, insistent that this is not the end of the race, Quoting Neil Armstrong’s “we pick ourselves up and go back to work,” and praising the fact that the Americans care or their astronauts whilst the Russians do not, earning applause from everyone in the room, and it’s clear that the congressman knows that the tide is turning against him so resorts to dirty tricks almost immediately, dropping a bombshell of his own.

According to the Congressman, von Braun built the V2 Rocket that killed thousands of innocent Londoners, much like the Saturn 5. He was not a soldier, claims von Braun. Merely an engineer. Yet von Braun was an SS Officer, the Congressman claims, making previously classified information public and ending any hopes of future missions headed by the director. “Call him a Nazi, he won’t even frown,” a television performer sings to applause, whilst a montage of the director’s photos of him with Nazi party members is paraded in front of the court. Playing into the personal stakes of the episode the immediate scenes that follow see von Braun meet with Margo, who wants to know if he knew anything about the concentration camps.

Brushing the situation aside and claiming that the Americans might face another setback with the Russians launching a new Rocket ahead of Apollo 12, von Braun states that Nixon and his cronies were laying a trap for him and he had to keep his work moving forward, proving that the series isn’t afraid from shying away from tackling hard hitting subjects that Battlestar Galactica did so well with Season 3’s Consequences in particular. It’s an uncomfortable scene, up until now we’ve seen von Braun presented as a well-liked and respected figure and a hero of the American people, and to see this turned on the audience’s head in the second episode shows that the writing room isn’t afraid of pulling punches. It’s a skilful move by credited writers Matt Wolpert & Ben Nedivi, executed to perfection in another strong episode. Von Braun justifies his decision by stating that he could have been dead and his work would never have come to pass, burying his work from the Soviets; but Margo sees this as a betrayal of trust and friendship and is taking no prisoners. “I chose America to give my life’s work. I gave them everything,” says von Braun, recognising that he’s no longer indispensable and been thrown to the wolves. He’ll do anything but admit he didn’t know, refusing to lie and tells Margo that progress always comes at a cost.

One of the final two major bombshells of the alternate history approach comes with the renewed focus on the moon; Nixon through Kissinger announces that there have been talks to bring the Vietnam War to an end much earlier than planned. America is setting themselves in a different perspective and making the audiences think differently, and given that the War is ending way, way, way before 1975 (would this timeline even get Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now?, a Rambo franchise or even Good Morning Vietnam?), it immediately opens up a whole new Pandora’s Box that cannot be put back in again.

The second major bombshell follows not long after; proving von Braun right in that the Americans had competition with Apollo 12’s launch meaning that not only have the Russians beaten America to another launch to the moon, but on top of that – the Russians have an advantage over the Americans, as not only have they put the first man on the moon, they’ve also now put the first woman on the lunar surface - Cosmonaut Belacova - and America has it all to do now.

And meanwhile, in the background, we follow with unknown purpose, the story of young Aleida Rosales, now in America and now with her father Octavio. Aleida has been protesting Octavio’s move by lighting fires – and just before one goes too far- Octavia switches her gaze elsewhere, to a NASA rocket, insisting that Aledia one day, could build a fire inside one of them. It’s clear that the show has greater plans for this character, and Olivia Trujillo shows that Aledia is more than capable of taking centre stage.

For All Mankind 1.03 “Nixon’s Women

It’s almost as if by the third episode the writers are realising that Ed works better as a supporting character and the series switches gears again to Nixon’s Women, in an episode that has echoes of Theodore Melfi's brilliant Hidden Figures. It has a feel-good type message to it that is – like the best space dramas should be, filled with optimism, but never fails to remind the audience that there are serious dangers and consequences to whatever space mission is accomplished. Not everyone is going to come back alive, and the casualty at the end of Nixon’s Women isn’t going to be the last this show has to offer.

If He Built the Saturn V
was Battlestar Galactica’s Consequences, then if anything, Nixon’s Women is Battlestar Galactica’s You Can’t Go Home Again. Wanting a strong propaganda message and with Nixon dropping in the polls among women, the President orders NASA to counter Russia and put a woman on the moon. Deke, ever the stubborn and determined by the book officer, wants to put them all through the correct training and procedural, and select a bunch of 20 candidates for a trial and error process, threatening his resignation if the Government overrules him. The Government is not having the best of times at the moment and cannot afford any more bad press, so lets Deke get on with his duty.

There is nothing new about Nixon’s Women, it’s a very much a training episode that we’ve seen time and times again. The candidates spend the episode building rivalries and rapports with one another, as the hunt for a perfect poster astronaut continues. The Moonlab Lunar base is also a priority (especially with the discovery of water on the surface); but so is this, forcing NASA to juggle their mission objectives. With no female astronauts at NASA, the series brings on board the best alternatives. Perhaps the biggest inclusion is Tracy Stevens, a token hire determined to prove herself after being brought on board by the Government due to her relationship with Gordo, with flashbacks showing how their relationship began when he worked with her as a pilot several years ago. Tracy being a White House inclusion means she has to fight harder to prove herself, with Deke even flat out telling her at one point that he doesn’t think she’s ready and she can’t cut it. Resigning is the best possible option to save face, and whilst she herself considers it earlier in the episode, Gordo is determined not to see her squander this opportunity. Eventually – Tracy decides that she is sticking in it until the end, not how much she wanted her new career until it was right in front of her.

Tracy is joined by former Mercury 13 recruits, Molly Cobb and Patty Doyle, who have a dynamic of their own and with prior astronaut training it’s easy to see why they quickly become favourites for the mission. Danielle Poole – an engineer at NASA – is joined by Ellen Waverly, whose stubbornness adds an extra edge to her character. Considering this large ensemble writer Nichole Beattie does an excellent job at rounding out the last 5 Astronaut Candidates (labelled as ASCAN) in addition to Tracy, who audiences will already be familiar with, giving them plenty of material to shine. It’s Tracy who gets the most attention out of the cast understandably, with her struggles placing her at the bottom of the pack. Fighting an uphill battle, she helps Ellen across the finish line by sacrificing her chances at a victory, whilst Molly finds out that Patty beat her to the punch. Even though the whole desert sequence may be a bit too familiar in training montages, it’s something that works – and shows what separates Tracy from the rest of the pack.

The relationship between Tracy and Karen creates some friction this episode that will be interesting to explore as the show goes on – Karen doesn’t like that her friend is getting an opportunity that she hasn’t, and Karen takes out her anger at Ed. She views that it makes a mockery of what Ed has done, and it’ll be interesting to see whether tensions escalate between both Tracy and Karen as things progress. In the final few moments of Nixon’s Women the tension suddenly ramps up dramatically, almost out of nowhere - with it being Ed’s turn to oversee the final five candidates take a test that is so dangerous it almost killed Neil Armstrong before he could even launch Apollo 11.

It’s made ten times crueller by a blatant act of misdirection that has Gordo witness an explosion whilst driving and race to the scene, only, to his relief, it’s not Tracy. But at the same time, both him and the audience surprised and horrified to learn that it’s Patty, who looked so confident and calm in every single training exercise before this one. The remaining survivors have it all to do, and it’s hard not to see the Government or NASA or both putting the brakes on the project after the first casualty, thus ending the three episodes that Apple+ have made available to watch all at once.

So far, For All Mankind has been an interesting experiment. The series keeps pushing the boat out and creating string after string of divergences from our main history that sets up an alternate world where anything is possible. Carefully reconstructing and doctoring archive footage and television events to make it look as though these events serve another purpose is something that the series has incorporated really well, and the stakes are only getting higher as the series progresses. With For All Mankind proving in the first three episodes that it isn't shying away from tackling hard hitting subjects, it's going to be very interesting to see how the series develops overtime in comparison to its competition. Because right now, based on the strength of these three episodes it's making a very real case to be the best Apple+ show so far.

What do you think of the first three episodes of For All Mankind? Let me know in the comments below and be sure to check out the next episode of the series on Apple+ this Friday. The first trailer can be viewed here.

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