The Last Man On The Moon
More documentaries at JDIFF! This one was my own personal choice, calling back to a distant time in my life when astronomy was a passion and legends of astronauts were my bag (before football and Tolkien and everything else intervened). The men who went to the moon (and the people who sent them there) are a dying breed at this point, as the worldwide mourning for Neil Armstrong a few years vividly demonstrated. The focus of this offering gave the eulogy at that funeral. At some point in the not too distant future, they will no longer be around to directly tell us about their experiences, slipping the bonds of earth to take on that final frontier. That reality is largely what inspired this documentary. I caught a screening of The Last Man On The Moon at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
In 1963 naval aviator Gene Cernan was recruited by NASA to become part of its elite: the astronauts would become the first men to walk on the surface of the moon. Over years of brutal training that left strain on his psyche and personal life, Cernan prepared himself to lead one of the Apollo missions. By quirk of fate, when his time came, it would be the last one.
I think this was a good documentary, a step up from the passable but unremarkable Dark Horse I saw earlier in the festival. The larger subject is fascinating enough – NASA and the road to the moon – but it has been covered, in detail, throughout the realms of both fiction and non-fiction many times over the last few decades. But there are still stories to be told and figures to be explored in that world, those from the latter Apollo missions – past Apollo 13 anyway – who have never enjoyed the same kind of spotlight that Armstrong, Aldrin and Lovell enjoyed. And Gene Cernan is one of those people. The Last Man On The Moon serves as an entertaining an endearing character portrait of the man, his life, his dream and the legacy that he is leaving to all of us. Through a simple set-up and a lack of direct participation, director Mark Craig allows his subject the chance to form the narrative himself, skipping over his most early years fast and then heading straight into the territory of space training.
It’s actually the beginning of that which allows The Last Man On The Moon its first moment of brilliance, an unexpected animated sequence, in the style of 1950/60’s advertisements, to illustrate just what the application and early training process for space travel is like. Craig demonstrates an early flair for the dramatic and the visually interesting then, before Cernan’s own words take over.
The portrait that comes together is not just about Cernan of course, but the larger community of astronauts and their loved ones. A picture is painted of a devil-may-care crowd that partied hard when not working hard, with hints and allusions to deeper debaucheries that Cernan doesn’t feel the need to go into. Wives go with the flow while they can, while acting as single parents for a vast majority of their day, their husbands lost in a world of advanced machinery and preparing for space flight.
It isn’t a picture of a group of people completely out of control, but it is one of a group of people loving life while they can, because the possibility of a terrible end isn’t that far away at any time. Cernan himself experiences misfortune, a mild kind, on his first trip beyond the reaches of gravity, as both astronauts and ground crew blunder their way towards a deeper understanding of operating in space.
Plenty of astronauts pay the ultimate price for their dream, and in discussing things like the Gemini 9 plane crash and the Apollo I fire that killed some of his friends, Cernan allows us to see into the mind of the astronaut, a person utterly committed to being the best and accepting all of the risk that comes with it, up to the point of dying long before you could get into space. The kind of man that a 1960’s astronaut has to be becomes more clear to us from these passages – a sort of studious daredevil, one whose lack of discretion when it comes to his owns safety is both a burden on his family and an interesting contrast to the level of work required to get on one of the Saturn rockets heading to the moon. The film itself opens with Cernan gazing passively at bull riders at a rodeo, barely letting the slightest glimpse of jealously also appear, perhaps as he thinks of times gone by. Men like Cernan naturally came to think they were invincible.
Maybe they had to think that, or else they never would have been able to go as far as they did. But Craig makes it obvious when it comes to the potential cost, skilfully blending in Cernan’s memory of the feeling with archive footage of plane crashes and other disasters he and comrades faced. Its foreboding stuff, but the attitude of those facing into these potential conflagrations is steadfast. The drive to go the moon is made incredibly obvious, as if it needed to be: one of the last great markers for explorers, who wouldn’t want to grab at the chance to go there, even if you were, say, 24th in line as Cernan was?
The Last Man On The Moon takes its time getting to the crux of the exercise, and it is time well spent, an almost rare thing to see in a documentary of this type. No wasted effort here: every facet of the pre-lunar portions serves its purpose to the larger narrative, be it in the fleshing out of the personal lives of the astronauts or giving us a detailed look at the inner workings of their lives. But most interesting to me was the (albeit brief) looks at the actual selection process for who got to go on whatever lunar mission. Cernan arguably should never have been give the chance to command a mission, especially after a helicopter crash that nearly killed him. But approved he was, over another astronaut, and Cernan’s reaction in modern times – partly confused, partly guilty, partly non-caring – seems truthful enough. We’ll never know what kind of skulduggery or backroom deals took place in those days, if they did at all. The key players are silent or dead. But it adds another dimension to the NASA legend, to realise that personal preferences and favouritism may have been part of the tale.
Cernan makes it to the moon, and over the course of a few wonderfully described and evocative minutes, recounts the most singular days of his life, as he bounced and rolled around the surface of our satellite, enjoying the kind of view, in person, that a very select few people have ever been able to see. The isolation is profound, the experience unimaginable in many respects. Leaving messages in dedication to his daughter and wondering about how long his footprints will be there before anyone else goes back, Cernan makes us understand the momentousness of the occasion and the incredible effect that it has on him. It’s no easy thing, to get that far and then have to leave it all behind.
You might expect The Last Man On The Moon to wrap things up at that point, but to my surprise it didn’t, and in a good way. “If you think going to the moon is hard, you ought to try staying home”, said by Cernan’s long suffering spouse, provides the theme for the last 30 minutes or so. The last portion is dedicated to his life back on earth, and how a man in his position has to strive to stay driven having accomplished something as awe-inspiring as going to the moon. The round of trips and PR for NASA, followed by decades of personal appearances and general promotion of space travel, allows us to see a man who just can’t lie still: that element of his personality, that drove him as far as commanding an Apollo mission, can’t stop being active, or else Cernan just would not be the man that he is. But the final part of the picture painted in The Last Man On The Moon then is a sad and melancholy one. Cernan’s first wife, the eminently sympathetic Barbara Butler, can’t handle the pressure anymore and leaves him, he admits that he hasn’t paid enough attention to his daughter, and health problems begin to rack up. At night, camping in the wilderness, Cernan stares into a fire, surrounded by a blackness, and seems very small to our eyes momentarily.
Added to that is Cernan’s return to the old launchpads that he previously embarked from on his trip to the moon. Past archivists who are struggling to make ends meet during a period of government shut down, Cernan takes in an area that, while preserved to an acceptable extent, is full of rusted metal and weeds. “Nothing beside remains” sprang to mind. He expresses the sentiment that he is unhappy he even bothered to come, to see a place once filled with so much glory brought to such a low point, very much the waymarker back to a bygone era, long done. The larger message of The Last Man On The Moon is made perfectly clear: these structures and the people who manned them aren’t going to be here much longer. Cernan steps back from his rigorous schedule at the behest of his second wife and family, but one can’t help but think that a man as focused and addicted to putting himself out there won’t be able to tolerate such a state of affairs for long. And, regardless, he too will go the way of others, and take one last journey into an even greater unknown than space. And when he does, and when the last astronaut goes, the world will have lost something special, perhaps something that we did not appreciate enough when we had the chance.
The Last Man On The Moon still ends on an upbeat note, theorising about future adventures that mankind might make in the void beyond our atmosphere. One does sense a vague vibe of propaganda from it at times, of promoting increased effort and financing in making further space exploration a reality. But The Last Man On The Moon, in surveying the career of someone like Gene Cernan and the larger NASA program in general, can perhaps be forgiven for expressing such a sentiment. Certainly, NASA and its people need plenty of advocates in a time when their work is viewed with a surprising amount of negativity and nonchalance.
The Last Man On The Moon, directed with panache and commitment, is the perfect film, perhaps, to show those people. Produced over seven years and with every minute of that patient filmmaking evident, I found it be both interesting and engaging, a great effort at capturing the imagination while examining a very well-worn subject. Cold hard calculation is part and parcel of the NASA experience, but Craig’s documentary is filled with emotion: the wife who knows before being told that her astronaut husband has been killed in an accident; the letter Cernan wrote to his daughter when he went out on the Apollo 10 mission; Cernan’s reactions to the disintegrating behemoths of his past; his final stirring message of self-fulfilment and having the courage to make your dreams a reality.
The Last Man On The Moon reminds us of what we were able to accomplish once, despite a horde of naysayers and a task that must have appeared impossible at times. In Cernan, we have a fitting guide to that period, and to the men and women who made the impossible possible. Memorable and moving, The Last Man On The Moon will stick long in the audiences mind, and might help inspire a few as well. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Mark Stewart Productions).