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

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 hours straight 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 know-how, 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, Al Reinert and William Broyles Jr., 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.
Directed by Ron Howard. With Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon and Ed Harris.

Rated PG.
135 minutes.

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!