By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

I started my SXSW film festival with a documentary which appeals to my inner child.  When I was in elementary school, the idea of space travel truly fascinated me.  From the fantasy of the Star Wars movies to the reality of the space shuttle missions and the history of the space program, I marveled in the idea that people could travel away from our planet. This documentary by Mark Craig will not only spark child-like wonderment within adults, it will also make children realize the endless possibilities of human intelligence and courage.

Naval fighter pilot Eugene Cernan enjoyed the thrilling and dangerous life of flying jets off of aircraft carriers. When NASA was seeking astronauts for the young space program, Gene knew that he couldn’t pass up this opportunity. One of the elite few selected for the program, he would undergo the tortuous physical training and the intense education required to operate a spacecraft. Gene eventually becomes a part of the Apollo moon program and would become the last astronaut to visit the moon. His work on the program has changed his life in positive ways, but it would take a toll on his personal life.

The Last Man on the Moon is a poignant and fascinating portrait of a man who was blessed with an exciting life.  Director Mark Craig and his crew do exceptional work in presenting the life of this truly remarkable person. Mixing actual footage with interviews and re-enactments serve the film tremendously. These re-enactments are not the silly dramatizations one might expect from some documentaries, but are excellently set up and well executed moments of cinematic quality. These scenes genuinely add to the drama and excitement of Gene’s story.

I had the honor and pleasure of speaking with Capt. Gene Cernan, director Mark Craig and executive producer Mark Stewart at the festival.  My first question had to do with the re-enactments, as these really standout from the rest of the documentary in a most impressive way.

Mark Craig: An awful lot of research went into building the models to make them factually accurate.  We were aware that we were making a historical document so it was important to get everything right.  All the details were researched and put in there.

Mark Saldana: That said. Since you put a very cinematic, almost feature film spin on your documentary, would you ever consider making a feature film version of Captain Cernan’s story?

Mark Stewart: It has been asked, actually.  We’ve discussed it.  I mean; we never say never. It is such an interesting story.  Clearly, it is something that would be of interest someday.

Cpt. Gene Cernan: For me, this film (the documentary) does not go Hollywood.  This is real world.  This is real feelings. This is real nostalgia. Real human beings.  We did not script nothing.  Nothing was Hollywood. That would be a tragedy from my point of view. We want the kids to see that this is real life and this is their life if they really want to make it their life.

M. Saldana: (To Cpt. Cernan) Space travel or fighter planes? Which gave you the biggest thrill?

Cpt. Cernan: Flying off of aircraft carriers is all I dreamed about when I was a kid and I gotta tell you it is a thrill. Particularly when they turn the lights off and you’re coming aboard 10,000 miles from land in the ocean and your coming in about 500 feet above water. That is one of the most challenging things you can do.  Every carrier landing, particularly at night is the first carrier landing you’ve ever made. Spacecraft is a different domain.  You call upon all your instincts, your technical education.  It’s not a natural evolution for a fighter pilot to go into a spacecraft.  You go from three degrees of freedom to six degrees of freedom.  There is no up. There is no down. Landing (on the moon) was the real challenge with these six degrees of freedom.  We had a switch once we got close to the surface (of the moon) that would put you in the some kind of automatic control. I didn’t go all that way to hand it over to a computer. Uh Uh baby! I landed it with these two hands (raises his hands proudly and smiling happily).

M. Saldana: Given the state of the space program, this film comes at a crucial time.

Cpt. Gene Cernan: It’s just sad. (Very melancholic)

Mark Stewart: This film is looking back, and looking back helps you understand how to move forward.

Cpt. Gene Cernan: If we are to move forward as an international community… I really believe if we go to Mars, it’ll be an international crew.

The Last Man on the Moon has one more SXSW screening on Wednesday, March 18, 7:00 p.m. at the Vimeo Theater.



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