“The Last Man on the Moon” documents the impressive life of Eugene Cernan, one of only a dozen men to ever make a lunar landing. The film is aware of the audience’s probable ignorance regarding Cernan’s accomplishments, not unlike comedian Norm Macdonald, who in a commentary on the Kardashians’ fame couldn’t help but voice his astonishment that of the twelve men to walk the moon, only Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong seemed to be household names. Thankfully, the filmmakers — and the aged Cernan himself — seem neither oblivious to this nor spiteful of its harsh truth.
As a documentary, the film does not aim so much to thrust Cernan back into the public’s eye nor, as I had suspected, does it devote itself entirely to advocating for the revival of the lunar program. Instead, for better and for worse, “The Last Man on the Moon” seems content in being a celebratory tribute to an impressive man caught up in an amazing point of history, when the American space program was spurred by president JFK to land a man on the moon. It’s unfortunate that, for all the grandeur the movie convokes, paired with its fittingly reverent tone, it seems such a tired topic to me.
“The Last Man on the Moon” feels unabashedly similar to something I might’ve watched in a science museum’s theater, or flipped by on the Discovery channel. Expect plenty of footage from the shuttles and pictures of space command, complete with celebratory cigars. Expect elderly people to reflect on their younger selves as wild, invincible spirits with whom their current beings could not compete. Expect Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” quote, JFK’s inspiring speeches and anti-war rallies spliced with Vietnam-era music. Chances are you expected these things anyway, and that’s my point. The story of space exploration is, today, not an especially untold one; so what makes Gene Cernan’s unique? Nothing but Gene Cernan himself, and this is an element of reality the documentary only teases at revealing to us.
The movie, from its summaries, was intended to display Gene’s passion, regret, success and failure in the space program. So why did I leave with only as much information regarding these topics as I entered with? Gene was overworked and thus devoted little time to his wife and daughter. The movie itself does not begin to scrape the surface of this turmoil, instead settling on a few choice words between him and his ex-wife, in which they very neatly describe their separation as a kind of inevitability due to his career. When he discusses this regret with his daughter, their conversation is brief and all too polite. Gene seems to attempt to bait some sort of reaction from his daughter, but she silently forgives him and the movie pulls away before we can get any sort of genuine emotion from the pair.
Honestly my greatest hope, and thus the most crushing disappointment, came from a scene in which Cernan silently strolled through the dilapidated, rustic ruins of a command center. After standing silently for a few short moments, Cernan scowls and, with a quivering lip, announces, “I don’t want to remember it this way. I almost wish I didn’t come here today.” Alas, the scene ends there, before any real unfiltered emotion is revealed. It seems the movie refuses to display to the audience any bit of humanity within Cernan that doesn’t fit its sanitized narrative of an American man who was too hard-working to sustain a family life.
Ultimately, “The Last Man on the Moon” is technically impressive: edited seamlessly and shot beautifully, and the movie deserved to be made, if for no other reason than as tribute to Gene Cernan. Beyond that, however, I can’t strongly recommend the film, especially to those already familiar with the history and accomplishments of America’s space exploration programs.