I’d hazard that many of the visitors to this site have a favorite movie whose production they’ve studied in detail, for which they can summon a raft of trivia gleaned from TV specials, old issues of Starlog and reminiscent blog posts from cast and crew. I’d further postulate that these folks have internalized that information to such an extent that they are more than capable of cornering anyone who expresses half an interest in the topic and talking their ears off about it. There are those of us, here and elsewhere, who have similarly devoured everything we can about the Apollo moon missions and are willing to hold court about them at length. As youngsters we scoured our parents’ back-issues of National Geographicor old Life magazines, and as we got older we ate up documentaries like When We Left Earth and historical dramas such as The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon.
All that is to say, for the initiated, the Apollo-era documentary/docudrama is a crowded space. And into that well-worn path steps the most recent entry, The Last Man on the Moon, a documentary by director Mark Craig covering the years before and during Apollo and focusing on astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon. For those not already steeped in Apollo lore, The Last Man on the Moon does a fine job of stepping through high points of the Mercury to Apollo progression in an economic 95 minutes. For fanatics, the material will mostly be familiar, but there are still fascinating new perspectives to be gleaned.
Although the title refers to Cernan in particular, the astronaut is less the subject of the documentary and more the audience’s tour guide through Apollo history. Craig takes us through Cernan’s Right Stuff origins as a naval fighter jock, and the banter between the octogenarian Cernan and his old wingman Fred “Baldy” Baldwin is a charming window into the machismo that propelled young aviators to take up President Kennedy’s audacious challenge to go to the Moon and back. A great Catch Me If You Can-style animated sequence follows, accompanying Cernan’s recounting of the cloak-and-dagger recruitment of those astronaut candidates, and that tendency toward multimedia presentation is further embraced with insightful CG renderings of Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. Beautiful NASA footage, of course, festoons it all.
As excellent a re-packaging of the basic Apollo narrative as this makes, The Last Man on the Moon really shines less in telling the story of Apollo than in telling the stories of the people who brought the program to fruition. Craig dwells a bit on the Apollo 1 fire, which killed the first Apollo crew during a training exercise. Legendary flight controller Chris Kraft’s recounting of
being on console in Mission Control during the fire is chilling; the story of astronaut Roger Chaffee’s wife Martha breaking the news to her two young children is heartbreaking. And to this narrative of sacrifice is added Cernan’s admission that very few of the men who made the trip to the Moon found time to be good spouses, a selfishness he seems to both regret and accept in equal measure.
This focus on the quiet reflections of the people who brought Apollo to fruition is wise, as it’s these grace notes that would otherwise be lost to us as that generation fades out. The Last Man on the Moon opens with Cernan at the Houston Rodeo, completely anonymous in his cowboy hat and jeans, surrounded by spectators who clearly have no idea they’re sitting next to the last human to set foot on the lunar surface. These modern gods still walk among us, we’re reminded, but we won’t have them forever. Evan as Cernan and Baldwin still ride side by side across Cernan’s ranch on horseback, they challenge the terrain more gently than they did the wild blue yonder astride jet fighters in their youth. Apollo will always be remembered for its stunning achievements and moments of high drama, but we owe it to those who literally shed blood, sweat and tears to achieve the impossible to carry their personal stories of sacrifice forward as well.
The Last Man on the Moon is available in theaters and on VOD now.