For All Mankind review: One small step for streaming, one giant leap for Apple TV+
For All Mankind
Cast - Joel Kinnaman, Michael Dorman, Wrenn Schmidt, Sarah Jones
Sneakily titled and surprisingly engaging, For All Mankind is the dark horse in Apple’s first wave of original content.
For instance, its brand of feminism is more unapologetic than even that of The Morning Show, which stars two incredibly powerful women being paid record amounts of money to tell a story about the #MeToo movement. But that is just one of its triumphs. Unlike The Morning Show, whose slick visuals often get in the way of the seriousness of its themes, For All Mankind rises above its generic TV aesthetic to take some truly subversive detours, however unbelievable they may seem.
Like so many alternate history shows before it – Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and HBO’s Watchmen come to mind – For All Mankind lifts off from an inspired premise. Here it is in a nutshell: What if Russia beat the US in landing a man on the moon, and in doing so ensured that the space race doesn’t end? Our planet’s course of history would no doubt be impacted. Scientific research that was abruptly discontinued would likely flourish, elections would be influenced, and most intriguingly, minorities would be championed, fuelling their evolution. Our conception of gender and politics would be altered, possibly for the better, and technological advances that would have taken five decades would be accomplished in two.
What was originally conceptualised as an act of grandstanding on a global scale — let us not forget that the space race was little more than a wartime PR exercise — could cause a ripple effect, leading to genuine change.
For All Mankind takes a humble approach to these undeniably interesting (and progressive) ideas, and unlike other television shows about space that spend more time on the Earth than among the stars, it doesn’t make excuses about its lack of budget, but uses its limitations to its advantage. The best screenwriting trick to introduce engaging plot developments is to write yourself into corners. And what greater challenge could there be for a show about space travel than being confined to Earth?
Creator Ronald D Moore (Battlestar Gallactica) and director Seth Gordon (regrettably, Baywatch), do an excellent job with the first couple of episodes. Not just satisfied with subverting expectations, they set the template for what the show could evolve into through its 10-episode first season. An ensemble cast of characters is introduced, and while Joel Kinnaman’s astronaut Edward Baldwin is ostensibly the lead, there is a feeling that almost half-a-dozen supporting players could at some point in the future take over as the main protagonist.
Baldwin is a defeated man, having commandeered the Apollo 10 mission that came so close to the lunar surface that he could almost reach out and grab some of that moon dust. But perhaps out of arrogance more than caution, NASA didn’t allow him to land, allowing the Russians to beat Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins’ Apollo 11 to it. The show weaves between fact and fiction rather seamlessly, although in hindsight, the ethics of using real-life figures to tell an entirely imaginary story is, and always will be, quite iffy.
For All Mankind doesn’t have the realism of Damien Chazelle’s First Man, nor does it feature a performance as magnificent as Ryan Gosling’s in that film. It is, instead, a show that captures the giddy spirit of optimism with which US President John F Kennedy gave that euphoric We Choose to go to the Moon speech in 1962. Mistakes are made in real life, TV can be more idealistic.