THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON – The Review – We Are Movie Geeks



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2015 may just be noted in the annals of cinema history as the year that Hollywood really went “space happy” (a more benign term for “space madness” I suppose). THE MARTIAN, a fairly fact-based film (though we’ve not gone to the “red planet”) won critical praise and was a box office smash. We’ll see if it takes home some Oscar gold this Sunday night. And of course there’s that space fantasy, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, that smashed several records and is still in the box office top ten nearly ten weeks after its release. The studios have mined the stars since the beginnings of movies over a 100 years ago. The great majority of these films are fictitious, with a couple of notable exceptions being the overlooked gem from the 80’s, THE RIGHT STUFF, and the 90’s nail-biter APOLLO 13 (and its HBO companion mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon”). TV cable channels along with PBS have presented many interesting documentaries about the space race, but few have gotten the full theatrical treatment. This new feature-length doc gives us another look at that time, one from the perspective of one of the still living heroes of exploration: Eugene Cernan, perhaps best known as THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON.

As the film begins, we observe an octogenarian (a very spry one) looking over prized steers and then taking in a bull-riding competition. We soon learn that this cowboy is actually Captain Eugene Cernan, as he then walks about the near-deserted Johnson Space Center. Soon he’s back at his ranch, setting out feed for his own cattle, his two dogs always at his side. He talks of his on upbringing, working on his grandfather’s meager farm. Photos are displayed of Cernan growing up and entering the Navy. An old fighter pilot pal joins him for a barbecue. Color photos and home movie footage of their younger days flash past. Then we hear of Cernan’s entry into the space program with footage of the grueling training exercises with nausea inducing contraptions. His former wife speaks of the his many hours, stretching into weeks, away from their home. Cernan examines the space modules and capsules now on display at different museums. Retired mission commanders and techs talks of the wonders and the dangers. Then we’re with Cernan aboard Apollo 17 for that final flight. But his work didn’t end there as we see, the former astronaut attends conventions (lots of handshakes and photos), does radio interviews, and travels the world in an effort to re-ignite the dying embers of the US space program, a task that would wear down men half his age. But as he tries to inspire a passion for exploration in new generations, we see the “space cowboy” enjoying more time for his ever-expanding family.

Director and co-screenwriter Marc Craig knows that Cernan makes for an entertaining guide through history and wisely allows him to tell his stories with few distractions. The scenes of the celebrated hero silently inspecting the sights of his former glories have a quiet power to them. Happily the film has more than its share of lighter moments. The wonderful family photos and films give the doc a nice “Mad Men” feel (Cernan along his pals and their gals are shown playing the infamous board game “Twister”). Particularly entertaining is a sequence utilizing whimsical retro animation (think CATCH ME IF YOU CAN) to illustrate the undercover astronaut job search. Most of the interviews are of the “talking head” standard, but the subjects are legendary: Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell and mission control marvels Gene Kranz and Christopher Kraft. Especially powerful are the unedited network news feeds (mostly from ABC) when the story tells of the tragic loss of Gus Grissom and his crew. But the film truly soars with the flight of Apollo 17. Craig and his team expertly marry the NASA footage with superb recreations (perhaps a mix of seamless CGI and miniatures with actors). The lush music scored by Lorne Balfe (TERMINATOR GENISYS) compliments each compelling image. Despite the majestic spectacle, Craig never lets us forgot the film’s heart, the remarkable Mr. Cernan, who enjoys recalling his legacy while moving on and looking ahead. He’s proud of the title, but you get the feeling that he hopes that he won’t be THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON. Here’s wishing that his hard work and memories send out an eager new generation of explorers.

4.5 Out of 5

THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON opens in select cities on February 26 and is available via iTunes and other streaming services



Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.