Between 1969 and 1972, 12 American men walked on the moon. Since then, no country and no man has been back to the lunar surface. The last person to do so, Eugene “Gene” Cernan, spent three days performing experiments and exploring the moon’s surface in 1972. And on December 14th, Cernan ascended the ladder into the Lunar Module, leaving his footprints on the surface behind him. “The Last Man On The Moon” attempts, with modest success, to trace the route of Cernan’s journey to this seminal moment of human history.
The doc picks up with Cernan, now 81, as he looks back on what got him into a space suit. Born in rural Illinois and raised in the midwest, Cernan learned at a young age to work with his hands. After graduating from college he enlisted in the Navy, where he first learned to fly. Cernan soon found himself among an elite group of fighter pilots who operated off of an aircraft carrier — one of the deadliest jobs a pilot could take on. Cernan, though, was a special breed. Looking back he is quick to note just how confident he was within a competitive field, where everyone aimed to one-up everyone else — a ruthless environment that surely helped to prepare him for the intensity of the NASA program.
In 1963, Cernan was recruited by NASA, and he packed up his family and moved to Houston. He flourished at NASA, but his first mission came in the wake of tragedy. As the backup pilot for Gemini 9, Cernan stepped up to pilot the mission after the original crew died in a plane crash just months before the scheduled launch, and along with his co-pilot, he successfully orbited Earth 47 times.
As Cernan gave himself more and more to NASA and his rigorous training, his family faltered. But, as the doc is quick to point out, no one at NASA could forego the opportunity to be a part of history, so, like everyone else, Cernan pushed even further into his work. While on Apollo 10, Cernan and his fellow astronauts reentered the Earth’s atmosphere at 24,791 miles per hour — the fastest any human has ever traveled.
Finally, in ‘72, Cernan made it to the moon. After years of jealously watching his peers touch down, and even after the government cut funding to the program, forcing NASA to cancel several planned missions, Cernan found himself drawing his daughter’s initials into the moon’s surface.
This, more or less, is the road “The Last Man On The Moon” walks. Directed by Mark Craig, the doc aims to recount an incredible journey. And generally it does. Cernan is an interesting subject, a high-energy workaholic who neglected his family for decades, watched his marriage fail and his daughter grow up without him, all while reaching one of the highest pinnacles of human achievement.
The problem is Craig doesn’t seem to know what to do with Cernan and the nuances of his story. Most of the film is carried by Cernan’s perceptive commentary, and a handful of interviews with those close to him, such as his ex-wife, his daughter, and his Navy wingman. But while the film is unafraid to peek at the failings of Cernan, it never manages to say much about the compromises he made, about the trying sacrifices great people make to do great things — which the premise is certainly loaded to do.
“The Last Man On The Moon” does succeed, though, in recounting the perilous and costly endeavor to actually put a man on the moon. At times, the film leans away from Cernan and digs into the meat of the story of NASA, and the collective of hundreds of men (it was mostly men at the time) putting their heads together and their lives on the line to further the reach of humanity.
Beautifully shot and edited, with incredible archival footage throughout, and compellingly scored, “The Last Man On The Moon” is, more than anything else, an engaging look back at one of the most exciting times in American history. The lens through which it chooses to view this story, though, might be the least fascinating aspect — or at least the least understood. Cernan, as interesting, arrogant, intelligent, and insightful as he is, doesn’t allow much room for discovery or interpretation; he already knows everything about himself. Of course, this is no fault of the doc, but one it never truly figures out how to handle, even as the film switches gears and focuses in on Cernan’s life now, and the family he is once again taking for granted. [B-]