The film begins at a rodeo in Austin, Texas. An elderly man sits in the stand watching the bull buck its rider furiously; a symbol of America, a daredevil pushing himself to his limits just because. Then we cut to grainy old footage of a space flight simulator, rotating its pilot at a dizzying speed inside a NASA training facility. The elderly man, a face alone in the rodeo crowd, was once the same man we see spinning endlessly in this simulation module. This is Eugene ‘Gene’ Cernan, the ‘last man on the Moon,’ an ordinary citizen made forever extraordinary by the fact that he was the last to leave his footprints on the lunar surface.
In the tradition of all good movies about space travel, Mark Craig’s The Last Man on the Moon carries big ideas. Both the film and Cernan ask what has driven mankind to travel beyond our own planet. Family and God are a big driving force in Cernan’s life today, but these things – like most other things in his life – were once sacrificed in favor of Cernan’s single-minded determination to expand his own understanding of existence. There’s a feeling of godliness in the now 80-year-old Cernan’s description of gazing from the Moon down at the Earth, imagining he could bring that blue-green orb back home with him for all to see.
Indeed, Cernan is almost a god in the eyes of director Mark Craig. There are times when The Last Man on the Moon approaches hagiography, an issue not aided by a flag-waving, all-American score soaring and pushing us to be awed. But Cernan is comfortable with admitting his own flaws, as are his friends and family – in the film’s most touching scenes, Cernan and an old navy pilot buddy rib each other over their imperfections as pilots and as men. Cernan openly admits to egotism, and that he and others in the space programme were “selfish” in how they neglected their families in favor of reaching the previously-thought unreachable.
Both Craig and Cernan emphasize how Cernan was a farmboy that grew up to be a navy pilot, and before long found himself invited to be part of the US space programme. The film, then, humanizes as well as lionizes, presenting us with the reality while also allowing us to feel the poetry of Cernan’s tale. And as well as Craig charts Cernan’s story (and the story of the US space programme, from Kennedy’s administration to Nixon’s) on Earth via some quality archive footage, the impressive collaboration of visual effects, animation and archive – used most prominently to depict the various journeys of the spacecraft – is where the director stylistically excels. Craig seamlessly fills the blanks left by the limited archive footage, offering a rare sense of that trip.
Still, there is arguably nothing better on-screen here than the subject up-close giving us his own personal history lesson. Cernan is a subject to pay attention to not just because of the feats he’s achieved in his 80 years (FYI: he also, with his Apollo 10 co-pilots, traveled the fastest a human being has ever traveled, and paved the way for Neil Armstrong’s Moon landing with a test run), but because he’s so warm and practiced at storytelling. Cernan’s self-awareness and admiration for his fellow astronauts makes it easy to forgive any ‘egotism’.
The Last Man on the Moon is not just a tribute to one man, though – it’s also an elegy for a time when humankind still appeared determined to achieve impossible goals. Flashbacks to the space programme’s 60s heyday feels like a glance at a time of unparalleled hope long since lost. When Cernan pays a visit to an old Cape Canaveral launch site and ruefully witnesses the state it’s now in, rusting and abandoned, it’s hard not to feel a pang of regret at how our spacefaring ambitions halted due to a lack of funding and a lack of interest. It makes Cernan as a subject doubly interesting: he’s a man way ahead of his time that’s somehow become a relic of the past.
A biopic of a worthy subject as well as an affectionate look back upon a lost era, The Last Man on the Moon is a compelling, elegiac documentary about the life of an ordinary astronaut.