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NPR Arts & Life

A 'Last Man' Imperfectly Remembered

Gene Cernan reflects beside an A-4 Skyhawk from VA113 squadron.
Gene Cernan reflects beside an A-4 Skyhawk from VA113 squadron.

Humans have an easier time remembering the first and last of things than we do the middles. The ends bulge out in our minds, becoming signifiers of the whole. So for someone raised in the United States, when you're asked to recall the men we've sent to the moon, your mind probably goes first to the originals: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. You'll perhaps associate their names with the swelling up of pride the nation felt at seeing those boots hit the lunar turf for the first time.

If you are a particular space freak, perhaps you also know the name Eugene Cernan, star of the new documentary The Last Man on the Moon.

As the end of the line, the one who turned out the lights before he left the moon, Cernan's familiarity to most of the American public should be on par with Armstrong's and Aldrin's. Why he isn't more embedded in our national memory is perhaps yet another sign that America's interest in its space program had already dwindled significantly by the time he commanded Apollo 17 in 1972. Afterward, NASA pivoted from the Apollo missions in favor of the space shuttle, which has shut down as well.

Tracy and her astronaut father, Eugene Cernan, in 1972.
/ Courtesy of NASA
Tracy and her astronaut father, Eugene Cernan, in 1972.

Cernan's role in the film, then, is as a one-man eulogy for the space program and all the promises it embodied. It's a daunting task without a proper crew by his side. Sadly, the film fails to provide one.

Though a welcome cinema corrective to NASA's legacy after last month's daft conspiracy-theory comedy Moonwalkers, The Last Man veers too much to the side of lionizing its cowboy. The film lovingly recounts Cernan's journey from naval aviator to three-time space explorer with the familiar assortment of black-and-white family photos, TV news footage and era-appropriate musical cues. But it doesn't offer any narrative we haven't already heard from the more famous space stories — from the infectious hubris of The Right Stuff, from the act-of-God morbidity of Apollo 13 and from everything in between.

Cernan is certainly a game onscreen presence — as one would hope, considering he shares a co-writing credit (the film is based on his memoir of the same name). The clean-cut 81-year-old chats about his three journeys into space, the strained relationship his NASA duties placed on his family life and his hectic "retirement" schedule of autograph signings and public appearances. Big emotional moments hinge on the death of Roger Chaffee, Cernan's close friend and onetime neighbor who perished in the Apollo 1 fire, and on a letter Cernan sent to his daughter just before heading to the moon and carving her initials into a rock.

But director Mark Craig never makes his interviews, the film's brick and mortar, feel revelatory or vital. We sense there is reserve, a professional prudence that keeps Cernan from, say, revealing anything about NASA that would threaten the organization's image. A segment on the Apollo crew's social lives revels in the "crazy" times the families had without providing any examples. The special effects Craig employs for his space re-enactments are impressive for a non-IMAX documentary, and they're edited together with a lush poeticism. Yet in other sequences, the editing is jumbled: a scene of Cernan speaking at Neil Armstrong's 2012 funeral is abruptly inserted into the middle of the Apollo chronology.

Manned spaceflight, or the present day's lack thereof, has become a political topic: Even as we send rovers further into the cosmos, we are reluctant to put anyone but Matt Damon on Mars' surface. The Last Man on the Moon wants to challenge that mindset by showing us what's possible when human gumption can work hand-in-hand with the national interest. But the film's struggle to differentiate Cernan as a person, rather than as the symbol he so clearly relishes being, oversells the "spaceflight" part of the equation while shortchanging the "manned."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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