Moonstruck

Alternately corny and inspiring, Apollo 13 is about more than just a space mission

His ship might be damaged beyond repair and his longtime ambition to walk on the moon dashed forever, but Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, still can't help dreaming.

As he and his fellow crewmembers float in a damaged tin can miles above the world, praying and freezing and running out of oxygen and hope, Lovell fantasizes that he's striding heroically out of a lunar module planted on the moon. As he skips gaily across the terrain, covering a good five yards with every stride, we assume his point of view, looking down at the tops of his boots as he leaves footprints in the lunar soil. Then he raises a gloved thumb before his face, squints one eye, and makes his home planet disappear, then reappear.

He's performed this ritual in his Houston backyard many times, but always with the moon, not the earth; realizing that the two spheres have changed places fills him with such elation that even through the glass plate of his helmet, you can see his eyes twinkling.

The image is sentimental, of course. We're seeing what Lovell will never see, poor guy. And it's definitely a Ron Howard moment. The filmmaker is known for inserting scenes into his pictures that ham-handedly illustrate points he's already made before, and with a lot more subtlety. A particularly odious example occurs in Parenthood, when beleaguered suburban dad Steve Martin, after having been told that parenting is like riding an emotional rollercoaster, shuts his eyes and actually pictures himself on a rollercoaster. But what the hell: whether you liked it or not, that image worked. And the walking-on-the-moon dream sequence in Apollo 13 works, too, on a far grander level.

Howard's latest effort isn't a great film. It never finds a way to defeat problems inherent in the docudrama form, like the reduction of characters to their basic plot functions and a general reluctance to indulge in lyrical, off-kilter, brilliant flights of fancy, perhaps for fear that the narrative might unravel (or that Howard, who's clearly a craftsman rather than an artist, might not be up to the task).

And Lovell and his fellow astronauts--lunar module pilot Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), a worrywart family man, and command module pilot Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), a rakishly charming, risk-loving bachelor--never locate an emotional core that resonates beyond the confines of their space capsule. Nor, for that matter, do Lovell and Haise's terrified families, or the stressed-out technicians down in mission control (except for the gifted Ed Harris as Gene Kranz, the crewcut-topped tough guy in charge, a man so sure of his ability to lead that he can silence a roomful of squabbling subordinates just by raising his hand).

But despite these problems, Apollo 13 is still an exceptionally gripping movie. Sleek, functional, likable, and loud, it's just about as good as this sort of film can get. It has no obvious heroes or scapegoats--or even stars, for that matter. The real star of the picture is the space program and space, period, and in showcasing them, the picture attains a clarity and power that's truly dreamlike. And that's what makes the picture so engrossing and moving, despite its missteps: on some level, Jim Lovell's dream is our dream, too.

The film recounts four harrowing days in 1970, when the Apollo 13 mission suffered a series of technical failures in space, and the astronauts and their colleagues in mission control labored desperately to save them. From this botched mission, Howard and his gifted team of film crew, special-effects wizards, and actors have come up with a chest-thumping, rabble-rousing advertisement for NASA, chock full of earthy humor (we finally get to see firsthand how astronauts relieve themselves in zero gravity) and the Puritan work ethic (lots of shots of sweaty men with untied neckwear and big bags under their eyes feverishly punching buttons on consoles). With its keen mix of space adventure, domestic melodrama, and eye-popping, computer-generated special effects, it's as functional as a rocket: considered independently, each individual piece is nothing special, but when they interact, the results are awe-inspiring.

Which, in a way, seems to be Howard's point. Considered in the context of our present political climate, Apollo 13 is a pretty subversive movie. As citizens, we've been relentlessly brainwashed in the past 15 years to believe that individual autonomy supersedes any other consideration. Hateful demagogues are forever warning us that collective sacrifice is for suckers; that government can't do anything competent, righteous, or inspiring; that spending money on behalf of an abstract ideal is folly; and that anyone who tells us otherwise is a dupe, a moron, or a traitor. Then along comes a hit film that illustrates the opposite--a movie about government bureaucrats laboring to save men sent on an incredibly expensive space mission that had no obvious purpose besides inspiring the nation.

No one person involved in Apollo 13 could claim sole credit for the astronauts' rescue. Everyone at mission control dedicated himself completely to the task of making sure they got home safely--from Kranz, whose absolute, ego-free concentration inspired his subordinates to rise to his example, down through an unsung young team of engine specialists who, using only equipment kept in the Apollo 13 space capsule, jury-rigged a device to solve a potentially-deadly oxygen flow problem, then got on the radio and verbally told the crew how to build it.

Even astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), who was scheduled to fly on Apollo 13 but was suddenly grounded when NASA doctors discovered he had the measles virus, pitched in, spending hours in a simulator to figure out how the crew could somehow cobble together enough power to operate their computer on the way home. (When a technician asks the exhausted Mattingly, who's been working several straight hours in the simulator, if he needs a break, he responds firmly: "If they don't get one, I don't get one." Chuck Yeager couldn't have said it better.)

What makes the film not just engrossing but genuinely inspiring is the idea that Lovell, Haise, Swigert and company were pilgrims lobbed into orbit on behalf of a principle. In that sense, the people who labored to save the Apollo 13 astronauts weren't just struggling to save three men. They were struggling to save what the three men represented: the unique American privilege of dreaming impossibly huge dreams and then committing the money and manpower necessary to make them come true. The exploration of space might be achieved in stereotypically American fashion--through elbow grease, technical knowhow, sleepless nights, and folksy humility aplenty--but it remains inherently thrilling. It's a primal fantasy of transcendence that defies the constraints of politics, religion, or ideology.

Our knowledge that Apollo 13 is about overcoming a horrifying technical screwup can't dampen our enthusiasm, because the way Howard and his screenwriters, Texas Monthly contributors William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert, tell it, the tale is a worst-case metaphor for human striving in general. Space exploration is like mountain climbing, another legendary activity that's undertaken primarily for its own sake: you fix your eye on the highest peak and keep it in sight at all times, but you can never afford to forget that your goal can only be reached through absolute, ego-free concentration. You can't get bogged down in squabbling, finger-pointing, scapegoating, or showboating. You have to just shut up, buckle down, and get the job done.

That's the operative principle behind Apollo 13, and the result is the most inspiring paean to collective action since Frank Capra went to that great soapbox in the sky. It's about the great things Americans can do when we put aside our differences and get busy.

It's a corny sentiment, granted. But it's also as American as apple pie, baseball, and men on the moon.

Apollo 13. Universal. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris. Script by William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert. Directed by Ron Howard. Now showing.

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