THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON (2015) review
written by: Gene Cernan (story) and Mark Craig
produced by: Gareth Dodds and Patrick Mark
directed by: Mark Craig
runtime: 95 min.
release date: February 26-March 4, 2016 (Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)
Watching “The Last Man on the Moon” will conjure feelings of nostalgia even if you weren’t alive during the historic Apollo space missions of 1969-1972. It’s nostalgia for a time in the world (not just America) when there was a sense of awe, wonder and possibilities – a time when humans could surprise themselves. Mark Craig’s documentary, focuses on Eugene “Gene” Cernan, the 81 year-old retired NASA astronaut who was the last man to leave a footprint on the moon. He’s one of the few living men who can look at the same moon that you and I look at and say, “I’ve been there”. Just think about that. The genial and humble Cernan calls the moment in history the ultimate quiet moment in his life, “pure silence”.
Before we get to know the man who started off as a Wisconsin farm boy and wound up a Texas astronaut, Craig takes us to the rodeo, where we find a cowboy hat-wearing Cernan in the crowd watching a bucking bull and a rider hanging on to dear life. It’s a scene that is about as America as you can get – all that’s missing is a hot dog and apple pie. From the swirling bull, we cut to old footage of a spinning flight simulator, which is probably what’s going through Cernan’s mind as he watches that bull. Looking at him in that moment, I can’t help but think how he must reflect on those moments on the moon just about every day.
Craig wisely puts Cernan front and center (not surprising, considering he co-authored his memoir of the same name) allowing the former naval officer and aviator, electrical engineer, aeronautical engineer and fighter pilot, to narrate the documentary, or rather recollect on a life filled with incredible events. Cernan talks about how he served in the Navy in his twenties, flying planes off aircraft carriers as a “red-hot naval aviator”, as he considers himself. Craig shows clips and old photos of a young Cernan goofing around or hanging out on an aircraft carrier, intercut with Cernan today, walking on an aircraft carrier in San Diego.
When he talks about getting the call, asking if he’d like to fly into space, Craig provides a fun animated sequence that follows the manner in which NASA recruited him and other hot-shot test pilots to Houston for debriefing and eventually a series of grueling physical, psychological and intellectual tests. The animation style reminded me of the opening title sequence of “Catch Me If You Can”. We then go into the toll of training for space travel and the camaraderie it built between the selected men, but also how it kept these men away from their families, putting all the responsibilities of maintaining a home, paying bills and raising children to their wives. It’s something none of the astronauts are proud of, including Cernan, who repeatedly states in the film how selfish and egotistical he was, supporting by talking heads clips of the likes of Jim Lovell, Charles Duke, Dick Gordon, Alan Bean and Tom Stafford, admitting that many of them were unfair, selfish and not very good at being husbands and fathers – unable to balance work and family life.
“The Last Man on the Moon” includes familiar documentary tropes such as following the subject around in the present as well as talking head moments that offer insight into what it was like to live and work with Cernan. We hear from his first wife, who states, “….if you think going to the moon was hard, you ought to try staying at home”, when discussing how hard it was to watch her husband’s lunar excursion on the television with the rest of the world – not knowing whether or not he’d come home in one piece. Cernan repeatedly emphasizes the toll his career took on his marriage, which eventually ended in divorce, stating, “some sixty percent of us got divorced – and I’m not proud of it”.
We also get time to watch Cernan and his best pal, fellow naval aviator, Fred “Baldy” Baldwin, hang out and razz each other over who was a better pilot. These friends knew how to play, but were also aware that one mistake or miscalculation could result in tragedy, Baldwin shares, “….in our business, risk was the price of progress”. Some of that risk is fatal, which is shown when we learn how the death of fellow astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission at Cape Kennedy, Florida in 1967, took a toll on Cernan and his peers. We also hear from former director of Johnson Space Center, Dr. Christopher Kraft and former NASA flight director, Gene Kranz – both of whom were calling the shots during the three times Cernan went into space: piloting the Gemini 9A in 1966, the Apollo 10 in 1969, and commanding the Apollo 17 in 1972, which was the final Apollo lunar landing. It was all new to them, full of jubilant victories and frustrating dilemmas.
There is personal insight provided that allows viewers inside the minds of these pioneers, reminding us how human they are. How do you sleep the night before you’re about to launch to the moon? What kind of breakfast do you have? What goes through your mind when you’re in a spacecraft and sitting on the launchpad, waiting to blast off? That’s probably something you’ve never wondered, but it’s that kind of personal reflection Craig includes – allowing us to get to know Cernan better – that makes “The Last Man on the Moon”, surprisingly endearing and special.
Regardless of how much you know about the glory days of the space program, “The Last Man on the Moon” will provide insight you likely were unaware of, since it hones in on one man. There’s even a moment of incrimination of the current state of today’s lack of space travel when we see Cernan walk around an old Cape Canaveral launch site, dismayed at the state it’s in now, unkept and abandoned. It makes you wonder if we’ll ever be as ambitious about space travel as we were in the 60s and 70s.
Although Cernan technically retired in 1976, his schedule seems far from retired – flying around to speaking engagements, conferences and benefits as well as guest spots on radio shows. He feels obligated to continue to share stories of the space program with the world. You get the feeling that’s probably what he’ll do too until the day he dies. One of the film’s last scenes is of Cernan visiting the Apollo 17 vessel which resides at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas and then cutting to him fishing with his dog, when we hear his voice, “I tell my children and grandchildren, dream the impossible. I walked on the moon – what can’t you do?”