Friday, March 18, 2016

The Last Man on the Moon

This Time It's Personal
or
A Very Dubious and Disappointing Honor

Captain Eugene Andrew Cernan (US Navy, Ret.) Holds the record for fastest man on the moon—he got the Lunar Rover cranked to 17 kilometers an hour going down a lunar hill in the Taurus-Littrow area (no speeding tickets were issued).

He is also one of the three fastest travelling men on Earth—on Apollo 10, Tom Stafford, John Young and Cernan re-entered the Earth's atmosphere at 24, 971 miles per hour, the fastest any human beings have ever traveled.

And he holds the distinction of being the last man to leave his footprints on the Moon, as he was the last to board the lunar module, Challenger, on the last manned mission to the Moon, Apollo 17, away back in 1972.

That last one grinds at him a bit, calling it a "dubious and disappointing honor." It's not his fault. After we got to the Moon in 1969, people lost interest, the television news divisions noticed ratings of coverage were down. When Apollo 13 suffered an explosion in space and there were doubts about the crew even coming back alive, let along getting to the Moon, housewives called and complained that network coverage was postponing their soap-operas.

I found a marvelous quote by Lyndon Johnson, overheard talking to the Apollo 7 crew (Schirra, Cunningham and Eisele) that sums it up neatly and presciently: "It's too bad, but the way American people are, now that they have all this capability, instead of taking advantage of it, they'll probably just piss it all away." As so many politicians said at the time of the Apollo program, there were better things to spend the money on, and went one to prove it by spending it on wars (10 major operations since the 70's, and a slew of what are called "actions"), bailing out foolhardy bank interests, and "bridges to nowhere" while our highway infrastructure was falling apart.

"Bridges to Nowhere," indeed. At least the space program had a goal. Other than to piss away money, at least.
"Last Men;" Schmitt, Evans and Cernan (in the rover driving seat)

At one point in The Last Man on the Moon, Cernan is photographed out at Kennedy Space Center, walking around the old launch-pads, where scrub is starting to make its way around the concrete, and he says one of the most honest things in the entire movie: "I hate to see it like this. I really wish I hadn't come out here."

But, he did. The filmmakers, led by director Mark Craig, set it up that way, and no doubt paid for the trip. Cernan is a big deal. He's one of a handful of the first three groups of astronauts who made The Big Trip in the 60's from the Earth to the Moon, at a time when things were bolted together, the computations were done on computers the size of rooms, and they were basically figuring things out "on the fly" and with slide-rules. The craft were also piloted by the most testosterone fueled jet-cowboys known to man, who seemed to be there by a combination of skill, craft, cunning, and the winnowing effects of Darwinism. You'd never know it from their "aw, shucks" demeanor. They took their jobs very seriously—because it could kill them—everything else, not so much.
Cernan's panoramic shot of Schmitt by their "split-rock"

One wishes there were more of that demeanor and less of Craig setting up interesting "locales" for Cernan to mosey through. The man himself is an interesting thinker and just listening to him talk about his life and Apollo takes you places you never usually go. There have been other nostalgic looks at Apollo, with some truly amazing background stories from the participants in their dotage—one of the most interesting ones, Al Reinert's For All Mankind, didn't even show their faces, just their wizened voices narrating the stunning NASA footage that had been "un-earthed." But Craig has Cernan gallivanting around, visiting old haunts, telling tales out of school, and doing a bit too much of what Cernan expresses a dislike of doing—living in the past.

Craig had extraordinary access to Cernan, his ex-wife Barbara and child Teresa (he wrote her initials in the moon-dust so it would never fade away) and the survivors like Al Bean, Jim Lovell, Dick Gordon (you never hear from him in other docs), Tom Stafford, Charlie Duke (forever the CapCom) and flight director Eugene Kranz, and Christopher Kraft (there's a spooky moment when Kraft tells about the Apollo 1 fire that killed astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee, where he looks behind him and says "I was sitting right there. I heard them die.") and Martha Chaffee, who still breaks down when she recalls the fire almost fifty years ago. Amazing woman and graceful.
A very grubby Cernan after 3 days camping on the Moon
Less graceful is what the film-makers choose to focus on—an entire segment of personal photos from the Cernan collection of the astronaut parties? Really?

And The Last Man on the Moon does something really irritating. See that shot of the moon-scape up above in the review? They use that panorama and "animate" it, giving perspective as if it was actually moving. It's one more opportunity for the crack-pots and bone-heads and conspiracy-addicts to look and babble "See? See? I KNEW it was faked." Yeah, yeah. "Stanley Kubrick did the whole thing" (even though he got the look of the moon-scapes wrong in 2001. Maybe that's why we've never gone back to the Moon. People are too damned stupid).

So, its nice to see the footage all cleaned up—and there's some amazing sound design work by Nick Adams (Bravo!—but use a little less red-tailed hawk next time, eh?), but ultimately, the greatest adventure off the Earth seems a little diminished by this film, which could have used a little more questioning of WHY Cernan is the last man on the Moon. The man certainly has the brass to bring it up. The film-makers do not.


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