In “The Last Man on the Moon,” director Mark Craig uses archival footage and recent interviews to delve into the life of Gene Cernan, a lively octogenarian who was an astronaut during the Apollo program. His 1972 moon landing was NASA’s final manned mission to the lunar surface.
Now 81, Cernan has hardly slowed down since then. He proves to be an entertaining narrator of his life story, which he’s also recounted in a memoir of the same name. Cernan was always a risk-taker, starting his career as a Navy pilot. When NASA came calling in search of potential astronauts, he was one of 14 pilots to make the cut.
He participated in a number of space missions during his career, including the Apollo 10 trip, which orbited the moon, and he became famous for his work. But he also lost a number of friends along the way, including the Apollo 1 crew, all of whom died in a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal. One of the movie’s most touching scenes comes during an interview with Martha Chaffee, the widow of one of those killed, Roger Chaffee.
Cernan’s final trip to space was the Apollo 17 moon mission. Before returning to Earth, he wrote his daughter’s initials in the lunar dust. That’s noteworthy, because Cernan admits on multiple occasions that he was a bad husband and father. Not only is the life of an astronaut dangerous – “risk is the price of progress,” one interviewee says – but it doesn’t leave much time for family, especially in the early days of the space program.
That being said, there are some amusing detours, as when Cernan, his ex-wife and their friends talk about the ragers they used to throw. (There are Polaroids to prove it.)
Such light moments leaven the mood of nostalgia. Cernan is proud of what he accomplished, calling himself the luckiest man in the world for all that he got to see. But he also expresses regret at having done it at the expense of his family.
Three stars. Unrated. Contains brief strong language. 95 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.