Decades on, it’s easy to look back at the Space Race of the 1950s, 60s and 70s with a certain degree of skepticism. One can look at Kennedy’s famous speech not simply as a rallying cry about man’s need to achieve simply because the goal is there with a cynical lens of geopolitics, seeing the entire Apollo mission as simply the last elements of space travel for which the American program could be first at. Beaten by almost every other metric by their Soviet counterparts, this was science and ideology intertwined, and it should never be forgotten that these rockets that drove men (and soon women) into space were in effect modified ballistic missiles.
We, as humanity, were sending people to other worlds, using in part the technology that we developed to destroy our own.
Yet beneath that veil of global nuclear threat and political rancour were a group of tens of thousands of people who for reasons both noble and venal came together to fulfil Kennedy’s almost preposterous claim – the U.S. would get men to the Moon by the end of the 60s. It was like promising to run the world’s longest marathon and we had just discovered how to walk.
The Last Man on the Moon focuses on Gene Cernan, Commander of Apollo 17. His résumé echoes that of all the other Right Stuff candidates – aeronautical and electical engineer, fighter pilot, the right height, weight (and, for the times, complexion and gender) to follow the original seven into space. His career as an Astronaut was tied to numerous tragedies and coincidences, be it the loss of the primary crew of Gemini 9, through to the shuffling of Joe Engle out of his crew in favour of the geologist Harrison Schmitt.
It’s this mix of tragedy, coincidence, politics and wonder that the film effectively potrays, using Gene’s narrative as a window into that entire era of space exploration. With a who’s-who of participants including Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft, Jim Lovell and others (names made popular for later generations from the likes of the Apollo 13 film), director Mark Craig has done a suitable job of presenting a kind of time-capsule. With talking-head interviews and some stellar mission footage, the film provides an exhilarating look both at the missions for NASA that Cernan undertook as well as his earlier military exploits.
Cernan famously wrote the name of his daughter in the sands of the moon, and the film goes to great lengths to show the ambivalent nature of homelife for the astronauts of that period. His ex-wife and daughter come across as level-headed and introspective rather than fawning, and Cernan too lays bare the fact that being an astronaut was itself requiring of being both narcissistic and fully committed, meaning things like wife and family took a backseat to the drive to space. These elements add both colour and context to his narrative, and they’re aspects of this history that are often under represented.
There remain some elements that are glossed over – while Neil Armstrong is mentioned several times, and there’s moving footage of Cernan delivering a eulogy to his fellow Purdue alumni – there’s no mention or participation of perhaps the most gregarious and at times controversial man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, whose lack of participation is noted if only for his regular proclivity to speak on such matters. The film does delve a bit into the highly competitive nature amongst these men tasked with heading out to another heavenly body, and there are certainly cracks evident decades later when Cernan gently discusses his shift in crew to incorporate Schmitt. These things are raised, but the film never really does get into the other reasons why Cernan, despite “screwing the pooch” with a helicopter, was still made commander of the final mission. We as an audience can read into some of the aspects of the narrative, but with first person accounts the film could have done a better job at cutting through the subjectivity and telling us as it is, in keeping with the straight-forward nature of these flying men.
At first blush, this is a straightforward account of a well-documented era, a pretty and engaging documentary that’s sure to please casual fans of the space program. Yet the film is deeper than that, getting beyond the aging cowboy who’s back is sore after his latest ride on his horse. Cernan and his fellow astronauts are our last ties to an age of wonder, where with handbuilt equipment, tenacity, foolishness and hubris we as a species left our mortal coil to seek out new worlds. It’s quite literally the stuff of both science-fiction and poetry, an actual, factual manifestation of something that for millennia was little more than a pipe dream.
Within the next decades all these explorers will be gone, and we’ll be left with this era seeming as distant as the voyages of Columbus or Cook. Despite its genial nature, this film plays a vital role in reminding us of the very human nature of our quests into space during this period, the drives and motivations that saw a dozen or so men climb out of a spider-like device and set foot on the lunar surface. The giddiness and excitement travels forward in time through this footage, and the sense of privilege and accomplishment from Cernan is both compelling and moving.
The Last Man on the Moon speaks of the end of a program, but hopefully not a terminal end. We will one day return to that body that shines in the night sky no doubt, and not simply with mechanized remote systems. As per Kennedy’s speech, we go there because it is there, and will go again, if not in my lifetime then sometime soon. And when those return to the lunar surface, they’ll see the remnants of an earlier program, and the scratches in the surface to commemorate the daughter of the last visitor to that place.
If ever graffiti was meant to speak through space and time, then Cernan’s message will remind of those back on Earth were very much on the minds of those exploring our moon. Like those etchings, this film will help us remember, help us feel that sense of discovery and adventure, and help us, perhaps, recognize our insatiable human need to reach for the heavens and try to find a way up there.