Live at the Apollo 13

Awake in the Dark

Hollywood, we have a problem.

At least we had a problem until The Bridges of Madison County and Apollo 13 cleared the studio gantries.

There can be little argument that the first part of this movie summer was a struggle. But our patience in slogging through Crimson Tide, Congo,Casper,Die Hard With a Vengeance,Outbreak,Pocahontas, and the rest has been amply rewarded. Good-bye, mediocrity; hello... well, something emphatically better.

While the grosses for such films as Die Hard,Pocahontas, and Braveheart have been good to astronomical, the two films that have generated the most excitement and created the longest lines (from my perspective of north Austin theatres) are Bridges and Apollo 13. Though it is already obvious to some, let's note for the record that these, among mainstream Hollywood releases, are the two grown-up films of the season.

It is not difficult to see the enormous appeal of these films. Both, in their ways, make heroes of ordinary people. There is tremendous power in that. Comic-action heroes offer speed, hardware, and fleeting, vicarious thrills for would-be adventurers. The heroes of Apollo 13 offer something much more resonant: identity. To see the crew of Apollo bickering with one another as they feverishly search for a way to save themselves is to get a glimpse of real-world problem-solving that, by the way, happened to shake the world.

Against the backdrop of today's big-dollar moviemaking, the pre-release promise of Apollo 13 seemed modest. Granted, there was that splendid cast made up of annual Oscar-winner Tom Hanks; Kevin Bacon, the grown-up bratpacker who has become pleasingly reliable; Bill Paxton, a much underrated talent; and Gary Sinise, whose theatrically honed skills have helped make him one of the most watchable second bananas of the day.

But given the industry's scandalous habit of re-writing, sanitizing, and punching-up history, great doubts arose as to whether the story on screen would have any relation to actual events. Space program buffs were in knots. One of them, a good friend, swore he would-n't see the film no matter what the critics said. Such is the legacy of films like JFK.

Verisimilitude's ace in the hole was the screenplay by Texans William Broyles and Al Reinert. Dramatic license plays no part in key events, and director Ron Howard meticulously recreates the hair, clothing, and lifestyle signatures of the late 1960s. This fidelity to people and events is surely traceable, in part, to Reinert's intimate involvement in matters lunar: He directed the documentary For All Mankind. Howard is to be admired for keeping the vision honest.

The news of Howard's involvement with the project gave little confidence to this Opie-watcher. Howard's films as director have tended to be richly successful (Splash,Cocoon,Parenthood) or ridiculous failures (Willow,Backdraft). And he doesn't just go from one extreme to another. Some of his films re-define mediocrity: Grand Theft Auto,Far and Away,The Paper. Through all of them, one is hard-pressed to find a personal signature. The title may say "A Ron Howard Film," but it re-mains impossible to know what that really is.

One thing we do know is that, technically, he is extremely competent and knowledgeable about shotmaking and the rhythm of individual scenes. I suspect it is his experience as an actor that has helped him become one of the more effective directors of ensemble films, the evidence being Parenthood,Cocoon,The Paper, and Apollo 13. If he has a style, it's his ability to gather a fine cast, set up the shot, and get out of the way.

Oddly, yet perfectly, Howard's bland suburban style is ideally suited to his latest film. This is, after all, a story about more or less ordinary folks transcending their limitations, working as a unit, and thwarting disaster. This was a victory not of chiseled heroes but of faces in a crowd, and Howard's competent but self-effacing approach is an affirmation of the ideal of collaborative effort.

It's true that a more visionary director might have produced a film that would also have been true to events - and dug deeper. There's a terrific film to be made, perhaps, about why the mission went awry. This film would show how a critical switch, manufactured to the wrong spec, was installed in the spacecraft, and how an oxygen tank had been dropped two years earlier. Without becoming a sneering attack on the space program, that film would also illuminate the miscommunication and quality control issues that very nearly left three dead men in space.

Most moviegoers are not so demanding. The lines we are forming for Apollo 13 are longer than any seen since the first Batman. And, yes, some of us are also paying to see Die Hard and Batman Forever. Parents are being dragged to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Pocahontas. But we should take heart that, in addition to a thriving Austin art market lately (Crumb, The Secret of Roan Inish, Burnt by the Sun), the 400-pound gorillas this summer are intelligent, tasteful films that represent the industry well.

Although it sometimes seems so, it's not all comic books and video games. n

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