If you’re a fan of “The Martian,” “Top Gun,” or “Apollo 13,” you’ll love “The Last Man on the Moon,” which contains elements of all three, but is in many ways superior to those Hollywood productions because it’s a true story. The biographical documentary about astronaut, naval aviator and space program hero Gene Cernan is a fitting tribute to the man whose name might not be as well known as Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin, but whose aerospace accomplishments are no less incredible. While Armstrong might have been the first man on the moon, Cernan was able to leave his mark as the last.
Mark Craig’s film portrays Cernan as a man with his feet firmly planted on the Earth. We see him working on his ranch, enjoying the simple tasks that keep him grounded and connected to his roots. Now in his 80s, the film captures Cernan in a reflective mode, pondering his accomplishments as he looks back on his life. His reflection is spiritual, existential — and that seems new for the former hot shot naval aviator and ambitious space program pilot.
With a quick reference to Cernan’s childhood, we are dropped into the story when he was mavericking around San Diego as a naval aviator. The reminiscences about these times with his Navy buddy Fred “Baldy” Baldwin, and their jocular, teasing rapport feels as though the two never skipped a beat.
But the real meat of the story takes place when Cernan became a part of the space program in the 1960s, and “The Last Man on the Moon” evokes the zippy, fizzy excitement that surrounded space travel at that time, with astronauts and their families essentially celebrities, working hard and playing hard. The bouffants were high and so were the risks, and we are privy to some of the grief that persists from the loss of the husbands and fathers who died in accidents.
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With sci-fi movies and TV, it can be easy to take the notion of space travel for granted. But “Last Man on the Moon,” re-establishes the sense of wonder and awe that once surrounded it. Even Cernan remains at times astonished. “A space suit!” He exclaims, still gobsmacked at the idea. It seems insane to willingly blast oneself into space on nothing but a sense of patriotic duty and longhand calculations. But Cernan did it, rocketing into the great unknown three times, serving as a pathfinder for other missions, and finally exploring the surface of the moon himself.
Constructed from present day interviews, archival footage and photos, as well as a bit of neato animation, “The Last Man on the Moon” is unique in the way that it captures both the adventure of the original missions and the personal impact on Cernan’s worldview. He seems to be a deeply spiritual, caring person, which might not always have been the case. For someone who has seen the world from far away, he still speaks profoundly about God. His experiences in space still resonate deeply, and he wants badly to express and share them with those around him. This film is a fitting start.
The Last Man on the Moon
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Gene Cernan, Alan Bean, Charles Duke.
Director: Mark Craig.
Running time: 1:35.
Rated: No MPAA rating.