- The Last Man on the Moon dir. by Mark Craig
Twenty-four men went to the Moon, each completing a half-million-mile round trip, between December 1968 and December 1972. Twelve walked on the lunar surface, leaving their boot-prints in the fine, floury layer of rock dust that covers its surface. They were supposed to have been the first of many; NASA's original plans for Project Apollo called for as many as ten lunar-landing missions, then a second round with upgraded hardware that would allow for longer stays and more ambitious objectives—but budget cuts, mandated by the Nixon administration even before Neil Armstrong's "one small step," carved away mission after planned mission. Apollo 17 became the last lunar-landing mission, and its commander—US Navy captain Gene Cernan—the last man on the Moon.
Last Man on the Moon, a documentary adapted from Cernan's 1999 memoir, is acutely conscious of his melancholy place in the history of spaceflight. A central figure in NASA's decade-long push to the Moon and a veteran of three of its most significant missions, he is also a living reminder of NASA's failure—really, America's failure—to follow through on that achievement. Most documentaries on the history of NASA, and virtually all of those dealing with the golden decade of 1961–1970, share a distinctive look and feel compounded of a fast-paced narrative, propulsive score, extensive use of official mission footage, and omnipresent voiceover narration laden with technical details. Last Man cuts sharply against that grain. It unfolds slowly and deliberately, in lingering shots set to a soundtrack filled with woodwinds and soft strings: quiet, autumnal, and elegiac.
Cernan's onscreen presence reinforces the film's contemplative tone. Tall and soft-spoken, with thick snow-white hair and a face tanned and creased by years in the Texas sun, he is every inch the "lion in winter." He claims, in one early scene, to live in the present—to only occasionally, and then only for a moment, look up at the Moon and allow his thoughts to slip back to the great adventures of days gone by—but as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that he has spent decades reflecting on those adventures. His appearances in more conventional space history documentaries have long since [End Page 114] established him as one of the most thoughtful and eloquent members of the Apollo-era astronaut corps. What Michael Collins of Apollo 11 did on the printed page in his acclaimed memoir Carrying the Fire, and Alan Bean of Apollo 12 did on canvas in his paintings, Gene Cernan has done (and does here) in on-camera interviews. He makes a familiar narrative seem fresh and new.
Last Man on the Moon sketches the background of Cernan's story as lightly and sparingly as possible. There is, for example, no continuous voiceover narration. Snippets of news footage, period music, and overlaid title cards consisting of one or two simple declarative sentences suggest the passage of time and remind the viewer of key developments. A clip of an A-4 fighter-bomber attacking North Vietnamese positions serves, at a moment where less-confident filmmakers might have fallen back on clichés like "meanwhile, the war in Vietnam raged on," to quickly illustrate the conflict. The story behind Apollo 10, Cernan's second flight, is summed up in a line or two of text about it being a "dress rehearsal" for the landing attempt of Apollo 11. A brief snippet from a lesser-known part of one of President Kennedy's speeches on the space program represents the n-th repetition of "before this decade is out" or "not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
The filmmakers fill the narrative space thus created with unfamiliar moments and fresh angles on familiar stories. The Apollo 1 fire of January 1967—an inescapable turning point in any narrative of the race to the Moon—is, for example, introduced obliquely...