It’s 1969. Americans anxiously gather around their television sets, staring at grainy footage of a man about to make history as the first person to set foot on the surface of the moon. He opens his mouth to speak, but instead of the famous line we’re used to hearing from Neil Armstrong, it’s all in Russian. The Soviets have beaten the United States to the moon.
What we see in “For All Mankind” is an America that has lost its confidence. The moon landing is a watershed moment in American history, an event that is seared into the memory of a global culture. It represents the United States at its most hopeful, technologically ambitious, and secure in its dominance of the international community. “For All Mankind” posits a world where that’s all wiped away.
Put in a position the United States hasn’t experienced since the end of World War II, when its status as a global hegemon was confirmed, it’s now scrambling to keep pace with a Soviet Union that seems to be outstripping them at every turn. A fascinating thought experiment follows: had the United States not won the Space Race in 1969 so decisively, how might the events of the second half of the twentieth century have unfolded differently?
We see the ripple effects of this alternate timeline almost immediately; as the United States is stunned by the Soviet victory, Ted Kennedy cancels a weekend trip to Chappaquiddick that would have claimed the life of an innocent woman and necessarily put a permanent end to his presidential aspirations.
But this show focuses on the effects this devastating loss has on the NASA community, and how their efforts to avoid falling even further behind the Soviets. Central to this story is Edward Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman), an astronaut who led a previous “dress rehearsal” lunar flight that could have potentially beaten the Russians had it not been for an overabundance of caution. But he makes the mistake of speaking about this with a reporter while drunk which makes him persona non grata at NASA, who view his candor as the ultimate betrayal.
Frankly, this subplot is the least compelling of the show, so it’s a shame that “For All Mankind” devotes so much time to it during the early episodes. Kinnaman has the commanding presence befitting an astronaut and decorated Navy pilot, but he lacks the charm and likability to make audiences interested in watching him mope around, forced to face the legitimate consequences of his objectively childish and unprofessional actions.
“For All Mankind” really comes alive when the Soviets send their second rocket to the moon, revealing the first woman to set foot on the lunar surface. Suddenly, NASA is under pressure to get an American woman in space, so they cobble together a class of female astronaut candidates. Of course, despite their many qualifications, the White House is most concerned that the candidates are conventionally attractive, reasoning that Americans will want a pretty face to look at.)
These women come from all different backgrounds, but their drive, optimism, and sense of wonder at the opportunity they’ve been given are all genuinely moving. They grasp immediately the responsibility they carry as an inspiration for all women and girls who have been prevented from following their dreams because of their gender. It’s a bit sentimental, but it’s also tremendously effective.
The way the astronaut candidates are written is so dynamic and their relationships with one another so nuanced, it’s difficult not to get sucked into their story. At its emotional heart is Tracy Stevens (Sarah Jones), the wife of an astronaut who worked as a pilot herself before getting married and having children. A homemaker and mother, she finds emotional fulfillment in her newfound career, while desperately trying to prove that she has earned her spot in the program rather than being included so she and her husband can be part of some pat “couple in space” narrative.
As the show progresses and the stakes grow higher, “For All Mankind” falls into a satisfying rhythm. The speculative element of the show’s central plot provides a new spin on the NASA moon landing that we’ve seen so many times before in film and on television. Although it takes a little while to really get going, by the third episode it’s firing on all cylinders and represents a promising start for the fledgling Apple TV+ streaming service.