Netflix’s Last Man on the Moon is a perfect bookend for First ManOctober 12, 2018
There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
The Last Man on the Moon, Mark Craig’s documentary about Gene Cernan, the commander of the Apollo 17 mission — which as of right now marks the final time America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration sent astronauts to the lunar surface. Drawing on home movies and vast archives of NASA footage, Craig tells a fairly complete story of Cernan’s life in the space program, detailing his earlier missions (including the problem-plagued Gemini 9A) and the stress the astronaut lifestyle put on his family. The film is threaded with reflective interviews, and framed by scenes of the retiree’s daily life, as a member of one of the most exclusive clubs: the dozen people who’ve walked on the Moon.
Why watch now?
Because First Man opens in theaters everywhere this weekend.
Oscar-winning La La Land director Damien Chazelle and Oscar-winning Spotlight co-writer Josh Singer take an intimate, impressionistic approach to the story of Neil Armstrong, the commander of Apollo 11 — NASA’s first time sending astronauts up to the surface of the Moon. Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as an emotionally reserved, doggedly analytical pilot and scientist who joins NASA before the Gemini program and pushes himself hard, in part as a way of coping with his grief over the death of his young daughter. The film begins a little before Armstrong’s application to become an astronaut, and ends a little after he returns from the Moon. The structure is episodic, focusing heavily — and with nerve-jangling intensity — on those moments when equipment malfunctions and momentary miscalculations put people’s lives at risk.
First Man is a “you are there” kind of experience, putting audiences inside the tight confines of a space capsule as it rockets to the stars. It’s an exercise in empathy, too, with Gosling’s quietly moody performance and Claire Foy’s more dynamic take on Armstrong’s wife Janet working together to make NASA’s strange, demanding culture more down-to-earth and relatable.
And yet while The Last Man on the Moon is more hushed and elegiac, the story it tells is remarkably similar to First Man’s. Cernan and Armstrong had a lot in common: arriving at NASA as the public’s interest in space travel was starting to wane, piloting multiple missions that had near-catastrophic errors, approaching their jobs with intellectual rigor, and carrying their affection for their daughters with them to the Moon.
Both movies also honor the sacrifices made by the astronauts’ wives, who had to deal with a lot of the same public relations grind as their husbands, while also raising kids, keeping immaculate houses in case TV reporters happened to drop by, and worrying every day that their men might not come home. It wasn’t just a fear of death that kept these women awake at night, either. The astronauts worked late, and even around the house, the stress of their jobs distracted them from their families. As Apollo 12 pilot Alan Bean puts it in The Last Man on the Moon: “We were not very good husbands. We weren’t very good fathers, either.”
Who it’s for
History, science, and / or military buffs.
The great gift of The Last Man on the Moon is that it collects a lot of the footage Cernan and his team got during the Apollo 17 mission. Video technology in 1972 was considerably improved over 1969 video, and the grainy black-and-white images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin making their “small step” had been replaced by clear color shots of the lunar surface. Cernan and Harrison Schmitt stayed on the Moon longer than any landing crew had before, and with the help of their Lunar Rover, they ranged far, gathering samples and taking remarkable pictures.
But even more than the documentary’s insight into NASA’s scientific achievements, it’s a valuable look back at a heady time in history, when Earthbound geopolitical problems and the rising generation’s evolving values threatened the program’s existence. The militaristic hierarchy and “clean Marine” style that made astronauts into American heroes in the Kennedy era were less popular in the Nixon age. The Last Man on the Moon is about how Cernan and his peers rose above all that — literally.
Where to see it
Netflix. Other good movies and TV series about space-exploration on Netflix include the documentaries Mission Control (about the geniuses who guided NASA’s grand adventures from the ground) and Mercury 13 (about the hotshot women pilots who never got the chance to go into space).