What if the former Soviet Union beat the United States to space during the height of the Cold War and the brief John F. Kennedy presidency? That one question lays the groundwork and premise in For All Mankind’s pilot episode titled “Red Moon” in which the United States comes in second place in putting an astronaut on the surface of the moon. Onlookers around the globe gather around their tv screens, at home or in bars waiting with bated breath to watch the historic moment that doesn’t conclude with an eagle landing nor a giant leap for mankind spoken into existence. Everything that precedes the event of the Soviets christening the moons surface with fresh footprints comes as an effect of the failure in the eyes of the Government. If the archival footage of Kennedy and other historic figures of their speeches and conversations didn’t stir enough urgency to be number one, losing is sure to accelerate the plans.
Based loosely on the real-life astronauts that made it into space, the United States quickly follows up with getting Neil Armstrong (Jeff Branson) and Buzz Aldrin (Chris Agos) on the moon, messier than expected, planting the American flag, and taking the first American steps. Beyond that, For All Mankind season 1 focuses on pushing the boundaries of the Apollo program well beyond the real-life counterpart for space exploration backed by the brightest minds working around the clock NASA has to offer. At the forefront is Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) who is a hair’s length away from being the first man on the moon in the Apollo 10 mission.
Ed has the perfect life, aside from being an astronaut, his wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten) provides a warm homelife along with their son Shane (Teddy & Tait Blum) supporting Ed in his pursuit to explore space. Being an astronaut means being egotistical and arrogant. For All Mankind isn’t in short supply of either from the ensemble cast of characters. Alongside Ed is best friend and fellow astronaut couple Gordo Stevens (Michael Dorman) and Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones). Starting off the season in a rocky situation, one of the subplots of season 1 focuses on their marriage and Gordo’s mental health.
Watching the two go from rock bottom to the top of the mountain top in 10 episodes is one of the many moments that will earn a tear or two by the time the credits roll and season 1 is left in the rear view. Though these astronauts are written as larger-than-life figures, it’s their humanity that makes the smooth landing stick.
If the revisionist history aspect doesn’t pique the curiosity of someone looking for a new series on the home page of Apple TV Plus, then the characters will, boasted by the strength of the writing within each episode. Taking place at the tail end of the 1960’s and mostly during the 1970’s, the space program quickly changes trajectories from getting to the moon to searching for water on the moon to building a lunar base all while racing the Soviet cosmonauts in the process.
But still, the United States is in second place when the first woman on the moon is a cosmonaut. Everything the United States accomplishes is based on a reaction to what the Cold War enemy is accomplishing.
Nearly every episode begins with archival footage that is then sprinkled throughout each episode. Once in the 70’s President Nixon’s presence can be seen and heard imploring NASA to begin training women pilots in which Tracy is selected into the program. Called “Nixon’s Women”, the title couldn’t be more relevant to the period and the President’s ego. Along with Tracy, the program selected other pilots Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger), Ellen Waverly (Jodi Balfour), and Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall) among others, but the former all made the cut.
Supporting the progressively aggressive nature that NASA has to conduct business in, is Deke Slayton (Chris Bauer) pushing for the inclusion of women pilots while not taking his position of power for granted.
For as much as the season is focused on Ed Baldwin, Gordo, and the male agenda of the program during the time, it’s the women of the series that shine that much brighter – supporting the ambition and inclusiveness of women in NASA that has been gender specific. The first woman on the moon for the United States is Molly Cobb, the first woman in the control room is Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt). Both advancing rapidly because of their talent and intelligence. Becoming invested in the story and sub-plots that branch off from top to bottom is the easiest accomplishment of the series created Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert & Ben Nedivi.
The political agenda though present is never held in higher regard than the science and mathematics. It’s the writing that is given the time to develop the ideas that a lunar base is possible or that a simple yet risky maneuver of passing gas canisters in space to land on the moon and it’s the ones in the control room, mainly Margo that take charge of the situation. Across the board the performances are outstanding bringing life to the fictional and recapturing the essence of the real lifers.
Ever since Game of Thrones and before that Breaking Bad, I haven’t been this invested in a series, becoming completely engrossed in the space race and what happens hundreds of miles away on earth – feeling the thrill of a launch, celebrating in the success of a mission, or mourning along with the failures or holding my breath as the oxygen levels deplete during a spacewalk thinking it will somehow be transferred through my screen.
Tension is built by the sheer spectacle and undertaking but supplemented and heightened in the more intimate moments due in part to Jeff Russo’s space themed score. Every mission has the ability to grab your attention and keep it firmly glued to the screen during the frenzy before, during and after the mission completes or fails. Of course, failing comes with the territory but it never stops NASA from shooting for the stars.
Purely fascinating and adrenaline fueled, For All Mankind is the type of hidden gem that is a difference maker in the era of the streaming wars. I admire the tone and intimacy created and made to look effortless. Along with Ted Lasso and The Morning Show, Apple TV Plus has quietly built up its library with quality series that are sure to make a lasting impression. From the writing and directing, the special effects that make it look easy to remain weightless in space and the performances, For All Mankind soars well beyond the limitations of the period to deliver an emotional ride, it after hit.
Created By: Ronald D Moore, Matt Wolpert & Ben Nedivi
Episodes Directed By: Seth Gordon, Allen Coulter, Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, Meera Menon & John Dahl
Music By: Jeff Russo
Cinematography: Stephen McNutt & Ross Berryman
Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Sarah Jones, Shantel Vansanten, Jodi Balfour, Wrenn Schmidt, Sonya Walger, Olivia Trujillo, Chris Bauer, Colm Feore, Eric Ladin
Where to Watch: Apple Tv +
Release Date: November 1, 2019
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 74%