Film review: The Last Man On The Moon

The Last Man On The Moon is a documentary film about Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan.

The Last Man On The Moon is a documentary film about Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan.

On 19 December 1972, NASA’s Apollo 17 mission returned to Earth at the climax of a 12-day journey to the Moon.


Its touchdown on back on terra firma marked the end of the Apollo campaign, and humanity’s final journey to the lunar surface, for the time being at least.

Crewmembers on this historic mission were Ronald Evans, Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan; the latter of whom would return to Earth bearing the illustrious title of ‘the last man on the Moon’.

A new documentary directed by Mark Craig explores the story of Cernan’s life and the Apollo missions that captured imaginations across the planet.

From his early days as a naval aviator, through astronaut training and the loves, losses and life lessons learned, The Last Man On The Moon is as much a story about ambition and the cost of success, as it is about humanity’s journey to the stars.

Left to right: Eugene Cernan, Thomas Stafford and John Young: the crew selected for Apollo 10's ‘dress rehearsal’ Moon landing. Image courtesy of NASA
Left to right: Eugene Cernan, Thomas Stafford and John Young: the crew selected for Apollo 10’s ‘dress rehearsal’ Moon landing. Image courtesy of NASA

The film is narrated by Cernan, now 82 years old, and the people who knew, loved and worked with him throughout his mesmerising career.

Overcoming the loss of friends and colleagues who died on the Gemini 9A airplane crash and the Apollo 1 fire, Cernan’s life as an astronaut was as much marked with profound sadness and tragedy as it was fame, ambition and elation.

In this sense, The Last Man On The Moon details the human cost of journeying into the unknown, and the sacrifices that were made in order to get spaceflight where it is today.

The film is incredibly moving: uplifting, inspiring and yet deeply saddening.

Cernan is an eloquent and humble storyteller, acknowledging the ‘selfishness’ of himself and his NASA colleagues as they neglected families, relationships and ‘real life’ in pursuit of a single goal.

Accompanying these narrative threads is an impressive amount of footage from the era, from Cernan’s family home videos to news broadcasts and interviews, giving us the professional and personal side of his journey to the Moon.

Interviews with ex-wife Barbara and close friend and naval comrade Fred Baldwin provide insight into Cernan’s personality and the life he left behind, as he trained and strove to set foot on the lunar surface.

The Last Man On The Moon depicts an incredible man looking back on an equally incredible life and career, reflecting on the mistakes and the achievements made along the way.

Successful documentaries succeed not only in teaching us about the chosen subject matter, but also in making its audience ask questions of themselves.

Cernan invites the viewer to consider their own life, limits and ambitions, and the predominant, lingering message is that nothing is impossible; that hopes and dreams are what make us human, and that self-doubt is the greatest obstacle to success.

Spaceflight historians and Apollo buffs have much to enjoy, as the film follows the entire NASA lunar programme from start to finish, setting it in the context of the Cold War and what the Apollo missions’ successes meant for the American people, and indeed the world.

Archive footage provides fascinating insight into the training and preparation that went into the missions, and comparing this with videos sent back from the International Space Station today brings home just how far we have come in the past 50 years.

The Last Man On The Moon is an important record of the expertise and sacrifice that went into the Apollo missions, but is also a call to look forward to the future.

Cernan points out that many of the people he meets today at conventions and events were not alive when he and his friends began their journey to Moon, but that they may still be alive when humans set foot on Mars.

As much about engineering and spaceflight as it is about the emotions and relationships that make us who were are, The Last Man On The Moon is a story that asks its audience to reflect on the brevity of human life, yet marvel at our innate propensity to achieve the amazing.

The Last Man On The Moon is out in UK cinemas on 8 April. For more info visit the film’s official website, Twitter account and Facebook page.

For more cosmic cinema, read our guide to the best space movies of all time.


Iain Todd is BBC Sky at Night Magazine’s Staff Writer.