"Apollo 13" has the makings of a masterpiece. Three astronauts zoom through space, trapped in a dying module, certain that they, too, are going to die. And as they race along, everything is right in front of them: their lives, their memories, their regrets, the whole meaning of the universe. It's hard to imagine a story that's richer or more profound -- here are men who see the dark side of infinity.
Unfortunately, "Apollo 13" isn't about any of this. It's about how these guys got home.
America is eating it up. Audiences are cheering, critics talking in superlatives, the punditocracy wreathing it with pontification. A Newsweek essay used the movie to make a defense of government bureaucrats. On PBS the other night, Charlie Rose treated the film's director, Ron Howard, with the awed reverence one might show Nelson Mandela.
While slightly comical, such enthusiasm is easy to understand. "Apollo 13" is tautly made, stars our most popular actor, Tom Hanks, and boasts a terrific, human-scale hook: Imagine being trapped in outer space. Anybody can identify with the gnawing terror of flying through the icy blackness in a flimsy shell that keeps losing power. Most of us flip out if we get a flat tire on the Beltway.
All this makes the movie "one hell of a ride" (in the characteristically measured words of Time magazine). But excitement isn't everything, as Hugh Grant could tell you, and once the astronauts return safely to Earth -- as we know they must -- you may find yourself wondering about the point of the whole journey.
It's central to the American character that we're a practical people, in love with efficiency, technology, the way things work. If this practicality found its supreme expression in the first moon landing, it has equally deep roots in everyday life. As iconoclastic critic Dwight MacDonald once noted, ours is a culture obsessed with facts -- box office grosses, Trivial Pursuit, the best-selling thrillers of Tom Clancy, whose technical discussions of weaponry invariably upstage his cardboard characters.
The same Joe Friday literal-mindedness runs through "Apollo 13," most of which is devoted to feeding the audience's fascination with detail. The scientists speak nerdy, indecipherable NASA jargon. The astronauts push buttons and go about their business with no idle chitchat. Back on Earth, the engineers figure out how to repair broken air filters, while their boss at Mission Control, played by jaw-clenching Ed Harris, barks that "failure is not an option" (a peculiar line in a movie about an aborted moonshot). Proud of its fidelity to external detail, the movie wants us to think it's completely apolitical; it's simply telling a true story of American ingenuity.
Maybe so. But this particular true story seems tailor-made for today's conservative mood -- its Angry White Men and its nostalgia for a homogeneous America that never was. Ours may be the first country ever to pine for its lost glory while still being the most powerful nation on Earth, and in its rose-colored images of bygone days, "Apollo 13" makes such nostalgia seem like a rational political position.
In fact, its story line could be a Republican parable about 1995 America: A marvelous vessel loses its power and speeds toward extinction, until it's saved by a team of heroic white men. I can imagine the political commercials in which Hanks morphs into Phil Gramm.
Although the movie's publicity trumpets its historical accuracy, the movie itself celebrates the paradisiacal America invoked by Ronald Reagan and Pat Buchanan -- an America where men were men, women were subservient, and people of color kept out of the damn way. And what of the satanic '60s counterculture? In one of the most telling subplots, Apollo 13 vanquishes the Jefferson Airplane. Astronaut Jim Lovell's daughter goes from being a rebellious teen with "White Rabbit" on her stereo to a docile young woman restored to the bosom of her family by her father's ordeal. Whatever the dormouse said, she's forgotten it.
"Apollo 13" makes the same kind of emotional appeal to its audience as did "Forrest Gump" -- it turns history into a soothing fairy tale. Even though the filmmakers have the benefit of a quarter century's hindsight, they let no historical perspective cloud the film's sunny vision of the past. Watching this movie, you won't see the least shadow of women's lib, the civil rights movement or that troublesome war in Southeast Asia. The America of 1970 is shown to be happy, harmonious and lily white -- the Mayberry of Ron Howard's youth.
Those who lived through the late '60s and early '70s will recall that the period was actually tricky, contradictory, kaleidoscopic. Even as Apollo 13 floundered in space, the United States was busy invading Cambodia -- less than a month later came the killings at Kent State. At one point, Harris's character blares, "We haven't lost an American in space yet, and we're not going to now." These are stirring words, but they contain a bitter irony that the movie lacks the historical awareness to recognize: The same Cold War bravado that produced the undeniable triumphs of the Apollo moon program led to tens of thousands of young Americans (and millions of Asians) being lost in the Vietnam War.
This is not to suggest that Howard sugarcoats the past for any insidious ideological reason. Quite the contrary: He's a showman who never allows anything into a movie that could possibly trouble an audience. While occasionally guilty of embarrassing coarseness -- this movie makes cheap jokes at the expense of Lovell's aging mother -- Howard has always been innocent of intellectual and emotional complexity. Having cut his teeth on the set of an affable sitcom, he wants his own work to go down as easily as a TV show.
That certainly happens with "Apollo 13," which uses its big budget to create a dazzling visualization of what happened on that ill-starred voyage -- the rocket's takeoff is genuinely thrilling. But I'm not being facetious when I say that the movie is less profound than the average episode of "Star Trek." It certainly has a much weaker sense of character. Kirk, Spock and McCoy may be cartoons, but at least they're vivid ones. Even when faced with death in the far reaches of space, the astronauts in "Apollo 13" turn white-bread dullness into a kind of religion -- they make Orrin Hatch look like Dennis Rodman.
It is true, of course, that the Apollo astronauts were notoriously boring (NASA insisted on it). Still, there must have been enormous wellsprings of wildness in men who would risk everything to chase after the moon, and one would hope that this movie might try to push through their bland veneer to show the reservoirs of arrogance and dread that drove them; it might even suggest what such men were trying to escape on Earth (the tedium of their suburban lives?). After all, in a journey such as this, physical bravery would be the least of the men's heroism. The real struggle would be the journey through their psychic landscapes.
Strangely enough, "Apollo 13" doesn't ask even the rudimentary questions about the astronaut's inner lives. What does going to the moon really mean to Jim Lovell (Hanks)? What agonies of regret haunt the mind of Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), whose hugely pregnant wife awaits his return? And cocky, womanizing Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon): What fantasies skitter through his mind during those long hours in space? The movie treats such things as beside the point. This lack of curiosity is stunning: Don't you wonder what happens to the soul of a man lost in space?
In his splendid book on the first moon landing, Norman Mailer expressed his chagrin that what should have been a transcendent moment -- humankind touching the source of sea tides and lunacy -- had been rendered banal by technology and NASA jargon. In its own small way, the same is true of Howard's movie, which uses state-of-the-art film technology to create thrills without resonance, motion without metaphor. Telling a tale ripe with the mysteries of life and death, infinity and nothingness -- for space travel exists in the no man's land between physics and dreams -- it dwells on the workings of hardware. The movie's never better than when no human being is on screen.
To appreciate the hollowness of "Apollo 13," you need merely compare it to "2001: A Space Odyssey," Stanley Kubrick's grandiose meditation on human evolution, or Phil Kaufman's "The Right Stuff," which has a historical savvy that "Apollo 13" badly misses. (If you want to know why astronauts behave like automatons, Kaufman explains the political reasons why.) These earlier movies grapple with the human dimensions of travel in space. Howard's movie is merely a feel-good folk tale, and you have to wonder what abysses of cowardice and ambition led Tom Hanks to turn down the lead in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" -- the one great Shakespearean figure in modern American history -- to play dull, worthy Lovell.
Now, it may seem unfair to single out the amiable "Apollo 13" for shallowness in a world containing nasty, violent botches like "Die Hard With a Vengeance" and "Judge Dredd." Yet even if Howard's outer-space thriller is better than many pictures, there's something unhealthy about our culture's euphoric response to another stand-up-and-cheer blockbuster that's completely deaf to the dark whisperings of history and the psyche.
In fact, the media's rush to embrace this film is another symptom of the signiphobia -- the fear of meaning -- that increasingly dominates our national life. After watching "Apollo 13," I kept thinking about the Smithsonian's Enola Gay exhibition, whose critics have succeeded in gutting the show of its human significance. It's one thing to debate whether we should have dropped The Bomb on Japan. It's another to treat the obliteration of Hiroshima as irrelevant. One can only gasp at the level of denial involved in dissociating that bomber and its crew from the hideous deaths of 130,000 people. This is signiphobia taken to the point of cultural psychosis.
While there's nothing nearly so egregious in "Apollo 13" -- no one would ever call Howard a psycho -- this is a movie that comes back from space carrying nothing for an audience to take home with it.
Hollywood, we have a problem. CAPTION: Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon and Tom Hanks in "Apollo 13." CAPTION: Harris in "The Right Stuff": By comparison, "Apollo 13" seems weightless. CAPTION: Holow Apollo: Ed Harris, top left; Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon in "Apollo 13."