Opening this weekend in the Valley at Harkins Shea:
The Last Man on the Moon—Sometime in the ‘60s, Charlie Brown asked Linus if he’d like to be the first man on the Moon. Linus, said no, he wasn’t that brave, that he didn’t even think he was up to the courage or responsibility of being second or third. Eventually he settled on the ambition of being the forty-third man on the Moon.
We haven’t gotten anywhere near that number. This documentary is a chronicle of the eleventh man to get there, who is also, to date, the last to leave. Former Navy flier Eugene Cernan spacewalked (terrifyingly) during the Gemini program and flew to the Moon ahead of Neil Armstrong in the “dress rehearsal” of Apollo 10, but his true distinction is being the last person to lift his feet off of the lunar surface, in December of 1972.
Now in his 80s, he’s a lean, handsome, high-cheekboned fellow with a full head of white hair. As Cernan and a few other talking heads—among them NASA luminaries like Jim Lovell, Alan Bean and Gene Kranz, as well as some former astronaut wives—recount his story and the story of the Apollo program, we see it, vividly depicted, both from startling archive footage and special effects recreations.
Directed by the British documentarian Mark Craig, The Last Man on the Moon has a personal edge and an ambiguity that’s missing from many space movies. Cernan tries to get into words the awe and wonder he felt at his experience, and while we don’t doubt him, it’s hard to shake the sense that, for those of us back on Earth—unless you were an astronomer or geologist—the literal Moon turned out to be a disappointment compared to the Moon of collective human imagination. It’s almost certainly why the program succumbed to budget cuts soon after Apollo 17 got home.
At the same time, looking back on the Apollo missions from nearly half a century later, it’s useless to deny a mad grandeur in them. Cernan wonders aloud what the Moonshots will seem like to people a hundred or a thousand years from now; I just found myself hoping that there will still be people around to have an opinion—that no crazy nationalism (of the sort that fueled the space race)—will have made it a moot point by then.
Another part of what gives this movie a hint of tension is that Cernan, while a reflective man, isn’t just a gee-whiz Tom Swift. It’s hard to resist Cernan’s story of writing his daughter’s initials on the Lunar surface, but Craig’s portrait of him includes another side: driven, ambitious, competitive, even somewhat vain. He’s been to the Moon, but there’s little doubt he’s a man of this world.