A film review by Craig J. Koban March , 2016

RANK:  #13


2016, No MPAA Rating, 99 mins.

A documentary directed by Mike Craig

Only twelve people have ever journeyed through the heavens, into outer space, and stepped foot on the moon.  

Let that settle in for a bit.  

Some of these brave heroes even managed to make the pilgrimage to our nearest satellite not once, but twice.  Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan was just one of those men.  He first went to the moon – albeit, without actually touching down on it – as part of the Apollo 10 surveying mission, which was essentially a dry run, so to speak, for Neil Armstrong’s more remembered Apollo 11 landing.  Of course, no one seems to remember the significance of Cernan’s Apollo 10 mission, nor do very many even remember the fact that he was one of the very last astronauts to walk on the moon with Apollo 17 in 1972.  That was 44 years ago. 

44.  Years.  

When Cernan touchingly wrote his daughter’s initials in the lunar dust all those years ago I wonder if he thought that his mission was indeed going to be mankind’s last mission to it.  It’s almost impossible to fathom in this day and age that NASA has never gone back.  Perhaps it’s a fundamental lack of Cold War era politics at play during the decades the followed (the space race of the 1960’s was definitely a rather large dick swinging contest between the US and Russia), and perhaps not one, but two doomed Space Shuttle disasters marked respective eras of people questioning the safety and necessity of manned space travel.  I’m also quite sure that the public appetite to venture back to the moon and explore its far reaches began to wane even in the aftermath of Armstrong’s immortal voyage.  Everyone on our planet knows of Armstrong, but does everyone know of Cernan’s missions, let alone name him for being one of the last men on the moon? 



The appropriately titled THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON is an absorbing and frequently moving chronicle of Cernan’s life, following his tireless efforts as a young man to become one of the chosen few with the “Right Stuff” to blast off beyond Earth’s atmosphere and visit the relative unknown and uncharted.  Ironically, he was country lad, born on a farm with no electricity, but he just happened to grow up to become a part of humanity’s most technologically challenging endeavor ever attempted.  Cernan (like the other Apollo astronauts) is a bona fide daredevil hero (how else would you describe men that wanted to blast off into space just a mere 60 years after man achieved flight…and using less computing technology than what’s in our smart phones in our pockets today?).   Director Mike Craig’s documentary is a thrilling tribute to All-American heroism, but it’s also rather compellingly not just about Cernan’s moon missions themselves; it’s also about how they fundamentally changed what kind of men the astronauts became, for better and for worse. 

Craig’s approach is rather traditional as far a “talking heads” aesthetic goes for his documentary, but when the individual vignettes and stories that are told ring with such a frank immediacy and truth, what else could one ask for?  He does combine interview segments with Cernan (now in his 80’s) and his family, friends, and other key NASA personnel, and combines that with a stunning array of archived NASA footage of the Apollo missions with virtuoso recreations of them employing thankless visual effects.  The overall approach here is relatively seamless, providing both a deeply intimate, yet all encompassing portrait of Cernan’s awe-inspiring career.  Considering that this was clearly one of the most exhilarating times in American history, THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON has to work overtime, so to speak, to generate interest in its subject matter that has been covered countless times before…and it thoroughly and confidently succeeds.  

And what a fascinating man we have in Cernan.  The film opens in a highly ironic fashion, showing him in western fatigues and a cowboy hat watching a bull rider at a rodeo.  The stark contrast of Cernan’s elderly life is compellingly juxtaposed versus his past career trekking into the cosmos, which all but helps cement THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON as a grand fact-based adventure yarn about real, down to earth men that just happen to be coveted as super heroes in history and socio-political culture.  Born in rural Illinois and raised in the Midwest, Cernan grew up understanding the power and importance of hard work.  He joined the Navy after graduating from college, learning the ropes of being a combat pilot, which, for the time, was an obligatory and necessary preamble to eventually becoming an astronaut.  When reflecting on the initial battery of tests – physical and mental – that he and his fellow space traveling hopefuls had to go through at NASA in order to be selected, Cernan humorously states that things were “put in every conceivable body cavity.”  Becoming an astronaut was no easy process. 

Of course, the film places great prominence on the crucial importance of his Apollo 10 mission.  If it failed there would have never been an Apollo 11 and no man would have walked on the moon on that fateful day on July 20, 1969.   With both prideful and sombre consideration, Cernan reveals the tragic sacrifices that the Apollo program went through in order to be successful, which ended up costing the lives of some, especially in the aftermath of the Apollo 1 cabin fire during a pre-launch test that killed the entire crew.  Eventually, the film progresses through to the first manned moon landing and to Cernan’s Apollo 17 mission, which he still looks back on with endless childlike wonder.  “I looked over my shoulder and there’s Earth," he softly explains at one point.  “There’s reality.  There’s home.” 

Unfortunately, public interest was dissolving with the moon landings by the time of Apollo 17, seeing as each subsequent one after 11 lacked the startling sense of newfound discovery and amazement.  The early Apollo missions were huge network ratings winners in their efforts to record Cernan and company on what was the hottest reality TV show of its kind back then.  Perhaps the finest area of focus that THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON covers is in how it deconstructs the hero-worship image that the general public has of these men.  Yes, they were heroes, but they were all deeply flawed and competitively ego and career driven individuals that, at the time, had no real concept of the stress they exuded on their families.  Cernan has great regrets about his time with NASA in terms of the negative impact it had on him as strong patriarch figure on the home front.  With an estimated (by his reckoning) 60 per cent divorce rate amidst Apollo's astronauts, Cernan sadly relays how he and his colleagues “were not very good husbands and not very good fathers either” that, more often than not, put their NASA responsibilities well above commitments to their wives and children.   When he did carve his daughter’s initials in the moon’s soil it came with a heavy burden on his soul for loved ones forgotten as he dared to do the unthinkable time and time again.  Comments by his then wife Barbara Jean Atchley have a straightforward honesty and speak volumes. “If you thought going to the moon was hard, you ought to try staying at home.” 

There’s an astonishingly surreal moment late in the film when Cernan looks at a museum display of his Apollo 17 capsule, which features a dummy in a space suit baring his name.  That’s followed by a quietly powerful moment of him staring up into the stars and looking at that bright object in the sky that’s nearly 400,000 km away.  He was there.  He was actually there.  It’s profoundly distressing to consider that whole generations will grow up never fully comprehending the vast enormity of the Apollo moon missions and their unqualified, influential magnitude in the overall fabric of human history.  THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON gloriously reminds us of a time when space exploration was not “routine” or “blasé” and instead simply…meant something.  It also rightfully paints a warts-and-all portrait of men – included Cernan - that are rightfully cherished as All-American superman, but were nevertheless imperfect and self-righteous individuals.  Craig’s film also reminds viewers that there were others that risked their lives beyond Neil Armstrong and company in venturing to the moon; Apollo 12 through 17 were anything but routine missions.  These men risked everything in their lives.    

There's one thought provoking query that this extraordinarily well rendered documentary about an equally extraordinary man asks: Considering that Cernan's Apollo 17 mission was the last one to the moon and the vast advances in technology that has spanned four-plus decades...why has no one gone back?

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