The story of Gene Cernan is that of an underdog in the game of history. He was not only an astronaut but one of the dozen who walked on the Moon, but aside from those who remember his name from the Apollo 17 mission way back in 1972 or are big enough space junkies to be familiar with all of the old guard NASA heroes, Cernan is not particularly famous these days. He wasn’t the first to touch the lunar surface, and he wasn’t part of the troubled or tragic missions that they make Hollywood movies about or continue to commemorate with memorials. He was just the last man ever to step foot on the Moon, a distinction that doesn’t carry much glamour. Maybe he’s a trivia answer, a footnote in textbooks at best.
The documentary titled after his specific claim to fame is deeply reflective. Cernan has a writing credit on the film, with director Mark Craig, and it does play out as a cinematic memoir. Cernan’s at the center, not just as the subject but also as the driving force of the narrative, through interviews and voiceover and a handful of nostalgic travel scenes where he revisits his old Naval stomping grounds in San Diego and the now barren launchpad where he took off nearly half a century ago. The Last Man on the Moon is itself far from glitzy. It’s certainly fine to look at, though, from its deliberate framing to its surplus of pristine archival footage to its fluidly integrated computer-generated visual effects employed for minimal reenactment.
But the man and the film both come off as pretty modest. Yes, this is a person who was on the Moon and that’s amazing, and Cernan definitely likes to remind us of his achievement. Yet the film is rather calm and quiet, never out to overdo his clearly inspiring feats. The doc allows the audience to think more than be thrilled, and what I at least came away with is that it’s a story of perspective, for celestial beings and human beings alike. Still, it also allowed me to understand how important Cernan was for the history of the U.S. space program. In addition to Apollo 17, he was part of the Apollo 10 mission that made sure the more monumental Apollo 11 could happen. The part of the film chronicling that is a tribute to all the unsung and less-noted people who humbly support the deeds of the history makers.
That would also include family, of course, and if there’s one interviewee in The Last Man on the Moon who is almost as interesting as Cernan himself, it’s his ex-wife, Barbara Jean. “If you think going to the Moon is hard, try staying home,” she says about the difficulty of watching your husband launched into space (it’s apparently a quote she gives a lot). In another memorable moment, Cernan reads a letter he wrote to his young daughter, Tracy, the one made somewhat famous later when he wrote her name into the lunar surface, that seems like a preparation for her to deal with his death, if that were to happen, as much as it was also simply a note of affection from any dad going away on a business trip.
We get to go along with Cernan’s life and missions as much as is possible through a documentary, even with CG supplements. It’s an experiential film, albeit one that he admits could never truly show or make us feel what it was like. And while he really means just the space and lunar mission stuff, but it’s true of all of it, his and anyone’s whole life. One thing that does come through very well, however, is Cernan’s confession that he’s constantly had a feeling of invincibility in his life, that as he saw death and disaster throughout his Naval and NASA career, he never thought that could be him. Only the other guy. There’s a subtle religious feel to the doc, too, that probably relates to that thinking. Regardless, when watching a story like this told by the old man who lived it, you’re always aware of the safety of the main character.
The Last Man on the Moon is kind of sleepy and slow, but it is quite beautiful as a work of personal rumination. It’s not just another history lesson to add to the pile of mostly great astronaut docs (including For All Mankind and In the Shadow of the Moon, both of which Cernan was contributed to). And it’s more than an autobiography, too. The film offers a different sort of space travel than expected, taking us into a man’s headspace, which may not be as exciting but seems to be a more interesting place than the Moon.
This review was originally published on February 26, 2016.