Most documentaries that cover NASA’s history-making Apollo program tend to focus on the big picture, and for good reason: there are lots of people, places, and events (both triumphant and tragic) that deserve to be mentioned when discussing the heroic efforts of NASA between the years of 1961 and 1972. But sometimes you can get a taste of the big picture simply by spending time with one specific person, and that’s what makes Mark Craig’s touching and fascinating The Last Man on the Moon such a cool, classy, and impressive documentary.
The subject of the film is Gene Cernan, who was (quite literally) the last man walk on the moon. Cernan was a pilot on Gemini 9A in 1966 and Apollo 10 in 1969, but it was as the commander of NASA’s final moon mission (Apollo 17 in 1972) that the heroic astronaut earned this distinction.
The film succeeds by focusing on one man working within a monumental project, and it’s this context that allows the viewer to appreciate some of the subtler points of the Apollo missions. We often tend to over-glorify our heroes, but Mr. Cernan comes across as a simple, straightforward, and admirably sincere individual. The fact that he was the last man to touch the lunar surface is fascinating in and of itself, but it’s his anecdotes about NASA’s history, its rousing success and tragic missteps, and the camaraderie among the original Apollo mission families that brings an emotional resonance to a potentially tech-heavy story.
Backed by a beautiful musical score, an extensive array of rarely-seen (and wonderful) archival footage—both on the ground and in space—as well as some handy “re-enactments” that help explain the various processes involved in a moon landing, The Last Man on the Moon is not just a well-deserved biography of one noble explorer; it’s a poignant reminder of why we went to the moon in the first place. And while we’ll always have the epic Apollo stories like the ones found in The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and From the Earth to the Moon, it’s refreshing to come across a documentary that illustrates how special the explorers actually were.
4.5 moon-cheese-filled burritos out of 5