With all the buzz around Oscars it’s easy for an enlightening documentary to get lost in the movie shuffle.
The Last Man on the Moon – a fascinating documentary about the life of astronaut Eugene Cernan – deserves to break through the noise to give families a chance to share how airborne heroes must adjust to life on earth. Without stretching the reach of Cernan’s accomplishments or exaggerating the drama in his life, the film returns to a moment in history when milestones in space gave our nation something to believe in.
With his movie star charisma and “aw-shucks” manner, 81-year-old Cernan could be a character created by Clint Eastwood. Clearly conveying a no-nonsense approach to life, Cernan downplays his remarkable achievements. From an immigrant family in the Midwest, he became a fighter pilot on aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy before being selected, in 1963, to be an astronaut for NASA. During his years with the program, he spent almost 600 hours in space, including two trips to the moon. During his second journey, on Apollo 17 in 1972, he became the last astronaut to step on the moon, an experience that sets him apart from his peers.
But he paid a price. All those hours in space – and the extensive preparation before each trip – took Cernan away from his family. While his former wife applauds his professional accolades, she authentically reflects on the impact on his family. Cernan himself – with that wisdom that age brings – observes the difficulties his commitment to his work created for others. But he’s not a man to regret, apologize or deny. This man knows who he is and why he did what he did.
The movie works for the same reasons. Cernan is candid, believable and engaging. Without bragging about who he is, or hiding what choices he made, he reveals the highs and lows of a life at many altitudes. One moment he reflects upon the honor to serve as an astronaut, before moving to the challenges of the work and the pressures it creates. Without apology, he admits that his fascination with his work was difficult for his family and his competitive nature could be a challenge to his peers.
Director Michael Craig enhances the personal dimensions of this story with a visual look that makes projects a larger-than-life quality. Working with authentic commentary, and strong archival footage, Craig makes us feel we are watching a big movie about presence who is right at home in the vastness of space.
No matter the visual approach, Cernan’s willingness to dissect his life reveals a side of heroism that history often overlooks. For anyone to accomplish there must be sacrifice. And the family times that any successful professional must give up can magnify when the work meets a higher need. For Cernan, like other astronauts, serving the nation in this manner was more than a job, it was a calling, and it was an honor. And it’s clear – no matter the bumps in the road he traveled – that this American hero would do it all the same way if he had to choose again. His comfort in his skin is as contagious as his belief in the extraordinary.
The Last Man on the Moon
Content: High. The real-life story of astronaut Eugene Cernan takes us into the world of NASA during years when the space program articulated a nation’s dreams.
Entertainment: High. Thanks to director Michael Craig’s approach to the material, and Cernan’s winning personality, the movie makes us want to learn more.
Message: Medium. Cernan’s willingness to sacrifice his personal life for his work reminds us what price people can pay to make history.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to share a movie as a family – especially a film this enlightening – is always relevant.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Thanks to Cernan’s candor, and a fascination with astronauts, the film can prompt meaningful conversation.
(The Last Man on the Moon runs 95 minutes. It is showing in theaters and On Demand.)
When Movies Travel to Outer Space
Our fascination with space – at a time when we search for meaning in America’s new dreams – frames some meaningful films for families to share. Along with last year’s popular The Martian, take a look some favorite trips to space at the movies.
Perhaps the best-loved movie about space, this detailed account of a suspenseful trip to the moon relishes in the detail of its screenplay, the shadings of the characters and the meaning of its message. By carefully creating the challenge these astronauts face, and recreating the layers of complexity in their rescue, director Ron Howard paints a picture of patriotism that would make any American proud. With Tom Hanks offering one of his most accessible portrayals, well supported by Oscar nominees Ed Harris and Kathleen Quinlan, the film radiates with the good feelings that any July 4th brings.
The Right Stuff
Perhaps the most exhaustive look at the layers of the U.S. space program, this complex consideration of what creates heroes was a disappointment at the box office despite its strong cast and compelling narrative. Oscar did pay attention by awarding the film four awards and nominating it for three others including Best Picture. Sam Shepard delivers a thoughtful portrayal of test pilot Chuck Yeager while Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid and Scott Glenn score in their takes on Mercury astronauts. While the film may have been overlooked when first released, its impact grows with time.
Perhaps the most visually exciting trip through space, this nail-biter from director Alfonso Cuarón thrills with its look, feel and tension. Sandra Bullock makes us believe she is lost in space, misses her home and despairs over her personal losses. The credibility she brings to her performance makes the film feel more authentic than its shallow story might suggest. Because Bullock is so good – and Cuarón so thorough – the film delivers a 90-minute thrill ride that never lets up. Cinematographer Emanual Lubezki won the first of his three Oscars in a row (the latest this year for The Revenant) for creating a view of space that feels so big yet small enough for Bullock to thrive.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Perhaps the most famous journey to outer space was, when released in 1968, considered a most outrageous epic. Director Stanley Kubrick broke all the rules of a traditional narrative to ask fundamental questions about life, freedom and control in a film that cares less about script and character than about visuals and meaning. Kubrick – never a director to repeat himself – dares to simply let the camera be and the images raise philosophical questions that a conventional approach could smother. Years later, the special effects may look dated, but the questions Kubrick dares to ask ring as true as they did nearly 50 years ago.
Perhaps the most conventional trip to space was, actually, released a year after 2001 felt as if it premiered decades before. The story – of three astronauts stuck in outer space – is chock full of every imaginable cliché, cardboard character and predictable situation. But it works mainly because of the authenticity of its performances. Gregory Peck is at his most heroic while Gene Hackman – before he became a big star – is at his most endearing. Look for Lee Grant and Mariette Hartley in sympathetic cameos as wives of marooned heroes. Grant, especially, can make any moment feel real. And the special effects did win an Oscar!
Leave it to Clint Eastwood to create a spaghetti western for outer space in this far-fetched but entertaining fantasy about over-the-hill astronauts who may still have what it takes to save the day. While no one would believe the set up, and the intervention is a stretch, the heroes are so engaging that we hope we can believe the steps they take. While Eastwood takes top billing, the performance honors go to Tommy Lee Jones with his patented crusty edge and James Garner with his warmth. They make us want to trust that, when danger strikes, these cowboys will actually ride in to help.
Yes, moviemakers love outer space. And, as long as we go to these films, we will continue to see them.
See you at the movies.