For All Mankind review: A space race full of political and personal stakes
Ivan Radford | On 31, Oct 2019
This spoiler-free review is based on the whole of Season 1.
The Man in the High Castle, but space. That’s the elevator pitch for Apple TV+’s most intriguing original series as the new streaming platform prepares to launch. The premise is wonderfully simple and full of fascinating potential: what if Russia won the space race? The opportunity for surprises is apparent immediately, as we see the moon landing take place in 1969, only for a Russian astronaut to end up on our lunar cousin, leaving America facing a red moon in the sky.
The response is both shame and a determination to catch up, and so we follow NASA as it races to get back in the pilot’s seat. It’s a cracking concept for a series, one that resonates with themes of national identity, global politics and scientific progress. For the initial few episodes of For All Mankind’s first season, those themes are still hovering just out of reach, waiting to be fully touched upon, but the longer the voyage last the more gripping and accomplished it gets.
The cast are uniformly fantastic. Joel Kinnaman brings a simmering, sour intensity to the part of Ed Baldwin, who was part to the Apollo 10 crew that chose not to land on the moon – a decision that sparks a hot topic debate in the press about whether he made the call or whether NASA did. Michael Dorman is equally convincing as his co-pilot, Gordo, who burns his ambition by chasing women rather than historic milestones – much to the frustration of his wife, Tracy (Sarah Jones). Stealing every scene he can is Colm Feore as Werner von Braun, the German scientist who gave his ideas to the US, only for them to question his loyalties when their astro-plans go awry.
Strong support also comes from Chris Bauer and Eric Ladin as Deke and Gene, NASA’s two top dogs trying to keep everything on track, not least because President Nixon keeps announcing new priorities every 10 minutes. One episode, the White House has decided a moon base is essential. The next, it’s all about training up women astronauts, because Russia has just landed Anastasia Belikova on the moon.
Ron D Moore, who has done fabulous things with Outlander and Battlestar Galactica, knows exactly what components to assemble to make a compulsive watch, and the Cold War tensions are just waiting to erupt. The period recreation is also seamless, jumping from Houston to Florida via captivated US living rooms with a confidence and lavish budget.
For All Mankind is happy to luxuriate in that gorgeously rendered backdrop, rather than use it as an immediate launchpad. And while that requires patience, it pays off as it gives us the time to get to know a wave of female space explorers. Jones, in particular, shines as fledgling pilot Tracy, who rises to join her husband in the NASA ranks. Sonya Walger is also brilliant as the hard-bitten, sassy veteran Molly Cobb, who has flown more hours than most of the male pilots, even if she’s more comfortable on the ground than in orbit.
Their outward confidence is nicely balanced by the advancement of Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), the first woman to get a desk in Mission Control, and the personal life kept under wraps by the conflicted Ellen (The Crown’s Jodi Balfour) – supported by accepting ally Larry (Nate Corddry).
In a world so well realised that it instantly feels like all the familiar space movies we’ve seen in the past, For All Mankind seizes the chance to blast the cobwebs away, bringing fresh human drama to every recognisable trope and turning point. Missions going wrong, rival bases spying on each other and nail-baiting rescues that take astronauts out on a limb are all deployed to up the spectacle and risks at an increasingly gripping rate – not only by thinking bigger but also by zooming in closer on each person involved. By the time the breathtaking finale touches down, Kinnaman is sinking his teeth into a showdown with a Russian Cosmonaut, while his wife Karen (Shantel VanSanten) is navigating the consequences of his lingering toxic influence and absence at home. Ellen and Deke, meanwhile, have a bittersweet heart to heart that’s beautifully balanced with a surprising bond between Karen and emotionally invested barkeeper Pam (Meghan Leathers).
The result is a rousing, alternate view of a nation building its legacy. All the while, the presence of a young girl, Aleida (Olivia Trujillo), who moves to the US with her dad, a janitor at NASA, suggests there’s a gripping purpose waiting in the wings for Season 2.
For All Mankind is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, with a seven-day free trial. For more information on Apple TV+ and how to get it, click here.