The Last Man on the Moon

B biographical documentary

Directed by Mark Craig

What was it really like to be an astronaut when that title was still new? Navy pilot Gene Cernan joined the elite ranks of space explorers not long after the original Mercury astronauts were selected. He flew into space three times–once in a two-man Gemini capsule and twice with Project Apollo. In his final venture into space, he commanded Apollo 17–the last manned trip to the moon. He is, literally, the last human being (so far) to walk on another world.

Now in his 80’s, Cernan tells his story in Mark Craig’s entertaining documentary. He allows us to understand what it was like to be an astronaut–not just in space, but on the ground preparing for the big events. The film shows us the camaraderie and competition within this small, select group. It shows how they all lived in the same neighborhood, and partied hard together.

But the film also shows the toll spaceflight took on families. Training, preparing, and testing was more than a full-time job, and it went on for years–leaving little time to be husbands and fathers. The stress on the family got worse, of course, during the missions, with constant news media and the very real possibility that Dad wouldn’t come back. “If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home,” says his wife of that time. And after the flight, comes the celebratory press junkets and world tours. Cernan admits that he didn’t have the time and focus to be a good husband and father, and like 60% of those early astronauts, eventually divorced.

The Last Man on the Moon provides an interesting but narrow history of early American space exploration, told from an extremely insular point of view. Before becoming an astronaut, Cernan ran bombing missions off of an aircraft carrier. But we’re never told who was he bombing (perhaps they were all test runs). The social and political unrest of the late 1960s pop up only once in a very short montage–as if director Craig felt obliged to mention it. The documentary doesn’t even cover the space race’s effect on popular culture–Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey never come up.

Nor does the film ever discuss the uncomfortable fact that’s visible throughout the picture: That all of those early astronauts were white, seemingly Anglo-Saxon men.

The movie really comes alive when Cernan blasts into space. There’s a sense of really being there, both closed in a tiny container and yet out among the stars. The awe, the majesty–and yes, the fear–comes through via narration, actual footage from the voyage, and well-integrated special effects. You may not notice when you’re looking at an effect; I only did when I realized that there couldn’t possibly have been a camera at that spot.

In the film’s climax, Cernan and Harrison Schmitt explore a valley on the moon, knowing that it would be the last voyage there in the foreseeable future. The sequence is magnificent. The beauty and the airless isolation drive home the film’s message: These men sacrificed a great deal to get there, but they experienced something truly unique.