SXSW Documentary Film Review: The Last Man On The Moon (UK, 2014)

the last man on the moon

“I’m the luckiest human being in the world,” says Eugene ‘Gene’ Cernan. In December 1972, he was the commander of the Apollo 17 mission, the final moon landing. Leaving behind his footprints and his daughter’s initials in the dust, Cernan returned to Earth.

From this simple and yet extraordinary premise, director Mark Craig weaves together Cernan’s story, from his ranch roots to his astronaut ambitions. It’s a highly personal tale, featuring extensive interviews with Cernan, his family and co-workers.

Cernan acts as something of a narrator for the documentary and he proves to be an honest, engaging and intelligent storyteller. He beautifully brings to life his experiences – experiences that the audience most likely will never get to share. He observes how strange it is to look up at the moon, knowing you have been there. He paints a picture of his time in space, the ‘pure silence’ and the reassurance of glimpsing the earth through the window of his space shuttle.

By uniting the personal with these otherworldly experiences, The Last Man on the Moon offers a unique take on the often-told saga of the U.S. space missions. So not only is the audience given a glimpse into the process of becoming an astronaut, but they also see the community behind it. The wives, the children and the ‘wild’ parties they had together. The long hours of the astronaut lifestyle and the risk involved took a toll on their private lives, which Cernan and his colleagues openly admit.

Particularly revealing and emotional is the documentary’s coverage of the deaths of several astronauts in the space program. First there was the 1966 aircraft crash that took the lives of Elliot See and Charles Bassett and then the Apollo 1 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. In the interview, Chaffee’s widow fought back tears all these years later as she recounted hearing the day he died. It is clear these losses still weigh heavily on the members of the space program as well. Cernan tells his own tales of dangerous encounters, such as a chilling episode of floating around in space, attached by an umbilical cord to his spacecraft and all but helpless.

The documentary skilfully employs the music of the era, news footage and photographs to evoke the atmosphere of a time when space was the last frontier, and the American nation – and the world – was engrossed in these explorations. It’s an elegant and poignant film, interesting to those even without a fascination with space.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Last Man On The Moon premiered at SXSW over the weekend – another screening will be held on March 18. For more information and tickets please visit the official SXSW film schedule.