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Review: The Last Man on the Moon

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the last man on the moon

It is a credit to the charisma of Eugene Cernan – the titular last man on the moon – that his personality eclipses our final frontier. The material concerning space travel and the Apollo missions seems somewhat incidental here, and is certainly no more intriguing than any other documentary on the era, such as Shadow in the Moon, For All Mankind or a Discovery Channel T.V treatment. Cernan is the real interest. Charting his personal life and professional development as a Navy pilot-turned-astronaut, it’s difficult to think of an individual with more America running through his veins. Its likely Captain America has a poster of him on his wall. Certainly, this is what appeals to director Mark Craig – something he continually plays upon in his film, seemingly suggesting that it is good ole’ fashion American spirit and values that propelled humanity to the moon, and it is this rejuvenated spirit that is needed to make America great again. Essentially, not too different from the next Donald Trump rallying speech.

We are introduced to Cernan as he enjoys a cowboy rodeo show – aw-schucks-ing at the display. From here the theme continues; sat in the moonlight of his ranch with his cowboy hat, Cernan drinks macho beer and reminisces about space over smoked steak (seriously). In his youth, Cernan was the perfect Eisenhower-era American, resembling Forrest Gump with his buzz cut, polo tops and ‘anything is possible’ attitude of 1950’s utopianism. He joins the Navy and lives the Top Gun life, feeling indestructible and on top of the world. After his Apollo missions, and finally conquering the moon, he now has the ageing stature of a Charlton Heston or Clint Eastwood, his face cracked and experienced like Monument Valley or the Grand Canyon. Clint Eastwood once made a film called Space Cowboys, a comedy about a bunch of old astronauts, including Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner, doing the impossible and going back into space. Well, Cernan is the real space cowboy.

It is the uttermost sincerity of the portrayal of Cernan that is the most enjoyable element. Propelled as a mythical Superman figure, the extent of the national self-conceitedness, reverence and hagiography is humorous at at best, mostly naïve, occasionally touching in its earnestness, but ultimately insufferably nostalgic. Nostalgic for the Republican U.S and those aforementioned good ole’ fashioned values. When briefly discussing the revolution of the 1960’s – a time of dissent, progressive values, sexual liberation, new artistic expressions and the stretch for equality – Cernan succinctly summarises the period by saying, “the country was in a mess.” What’s the solution? “We needed a hero.” Is that what was needed? A strong authority figure? Along came Nixon. If you want an indicator of the films politics look no further than this. It seems the overall message of the film is for the need of male go-getter’s, the importance of ego, competition “getting the job done,” as Cernan often remarks. It’s a shame that Cernan only ever seems to view the conquest of space in militaristic, nationalistic and labour terms. Most space films are rooted in western frontier mythology (read Geoff King’s book, Spectacular Narratives), but while Christopher Nolan’s recent Interstellar bemoaned the demise of humanities reach for the stars, it never associated this with such patriotic or militaristic nonsense.

The wealth of archival and personal material on display in this doc is impressive and the story is told in a well-executed manner, but the film never really scrutinises or gets down to the nitty-gritty. It always remains passé and traditional. Despite its covert politics, the films conduct is just fine, the last in the line of Goldilocks porridge. Ultimately, it wants to flog an unthreatening idea of America, masculinity and exploration that I for one ain’t buyin’.

 

2-out-of-5

The Last Man on the Moon is available on iTunes and On Demand from 15 April.

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