'The Last Man on the Moon': Sheffield Review

Last Man on the Moon Still - H 2014
Mark Stewart Productions

Last Man on the Moon Still - H 2014

To infinity and beyond.

This upbeat British documentary retraces the dramatic life story of Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan with warmth, depth and superb visual effects.

Take a pinch of Top Gun, stir in a generous dollop of The Right Stuff, add a light sprinkling of Mad Men and you have the formula for this uplifting documentary portrait of former Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan. A real-life space cowboy in the Clint Eastwood mold, Cernan's epic story is a gift to any filmmaker. Still a tireless public speaker at the age of 80, his NASA career was full of fateful twists and daredevil drama, most of it helpfully documented in high-quality archive footage.

Premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest in the U.K. this week, The Last Man on the Moon is an effortlessly enjoyable true story grounded in the technocratic post-war optimism of the JFK era. Inspirational and warm-hearted without straying into Hollywood kitsch, it will be a solid candidate for further festival bookings. Though the subject is perhaps more likely to interest TV buyers, the grand historical canvas and superlative visual effects feel very well suited to a big screen.

A living embodiment of the American Dream, Cernan rose from a blue-collar immigrant family to become a much-decorated U.S. Navy pilot and record-breaking astronaut. Recruited by NASA in 1966 despite his lack of qualifications, he logged almost 600 hours in space over the next decade, 73 of them on the moon. He is the only man to have descended to the lunar surface twice, the first as a test run for Neil Armstrong's crew. He also took one of the first space walks and set the speed record for a manned vehicle, hitting 24,791 miles per hour during Apollo 10's fiery re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.

British director Mark Craig is just the latest filmmaker to recognize the dramatic potential of America's space program and its clean-cut heroes. The Last Man on the Moon strikes a familiar narrative tone, celebratory and uncritical, with disappointingly little of the Cold War context behind the space race. But it benefits from taking a lifelong view of its subject, with more domestic and emotional detail than previous astronaut movies.

Looking back over eight remarkable decades, Cernan's once-prodigious ego is now tempered with grandfatherly hindsight and humility. He ruefully reflects how NASA duties came with a heavy price, claiming the lives of numerous comrades. He also confesses to becoming too selfishly absorbed in his globetrotting spaceman fame, wrecking his first marriage and leading him to miss much of his eldest daughter Teresa's early childhood. Then again, he did carve her initials on the lunar surface, which must earn him some serious Cool Dad points. Teresa appears in the film, as do both wives. There is no rancor here. Houston, we don't have a serious problem.

Craig previously directed documentary portraits of Grand Prix race car drivers, and there are clear parallels between these two high-risk careers, where great courage meets cutting-edge technology. Indeed, the production company behind The Last Man on the Moon belongs to Mark Stewart, son of the Scottish Formula 1 legend Jackie Stewart. Both father and son have executive producer credits here.

The director began his career working in graphics for British television, which helps explain the film's strong visual look. Opening with zippy animated credits that recall the legendary Saul Bass, The Last Man on the Moon includes spectacular CG sequences that recreate Cernan's space missions in Gravity-style widescreen dimensions. Visual effects supervisor Penny Holton and sound designer Nick Adams both do great work here. Lorne Balfe's stirring score also adds to the sense that we are witnessing the last will and testament of an old-school hero from a more innocent age.

Production companies: Stopwatch Productions, Mark Stewart Productions
Starring: Eugene Cernan, Jim Lovell, Teresa Dawn Cernan, Gene Kranz
Director: Mark Craig
Screenwriters: Eugene Cernan, Mark Craig
Producers: Gareth Dodds, Patrick Mark
Cinematographer: Tim Cragg    
Editors: David Fairhead, Dan Haythorn    
Visual effects supervisor: Penny Holton
Sound designer: Nick Adams
Music: Lorne Balfe
Sales company: Mark Stewart Productions
No rating, 99 minutes