Every movie-goer knows that every now and then a particular actor appears to be everywhere, dominating cinema screens for a year or two and then passing out of the spotlight. More interesting is when their noteworthy roles do more than entertain, but capture something of the mood of the times. A few years ago the actor of the moment was Michael Douglas, encapsulating a particular brand of middle-American male angst in such films as Fatal Attraction and Falling Down. More recently we've seen Tom Hanks win Oscars for successive roles in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, two films intended as entertainment-as-statement, and both very much films of their day.
Well, lay your bets for next year's Oscars now, because Hanks's ability to pick winners continues to hold true in Apollo 13. It may seem odd to single out a seemingly straight-forward true-story techno-thriller as indicative of the spirit of 1995, but bear with me: Apollo 13 is about a lot more than NASA circa 1970.
It's a bit of a cheat to single out Hanks for attention: while he gives a perfectly fine performance, this is very much an ensemble piece, just as the whole American space programme has been. NASA's stars have been arbitrary ones—as recognised here in an early scene when a fellow astronaut, talking to himself while watching a television broadcast of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, tries out a list of great pioneers with Armstrong's name following that of Columbus: the incongruity is clear.
Director Ron Howard marshalls his team of actors and film-crew perfectly. The result is Howard's best film, a totally-convincing depiction of America's big-budget spectacular of the late 1960s, the Apollo programme. While many film-makers have explored the other big-budget spectacular of that age—the Vietnam War—few have fixed their gaze upon the lunar missions, those grand, inspirational, hubristic and faintly insane episodes which provided some of the defining moments of the late twentieth century.
The reason may be that in 1995 it seems odd to consider the moon landings as definitive of our age. It is something of a shock to watch Apollo 13 and realise that the shining white futuristic sets represent a bygone age. It's enough to prompt even the most hopeless optimist to ask whether we have progressed or in fact gone backwards; only the quaint monochrome computer readouts remind us that the whole enterprise was underpinned by technology amazingly basic by today's standards.
Apollo 13 underscores the fragility of the whole exercise by telling the story of the moon-shot which went wrong. As the Challenger disaster reminded a later generation, NASA has by no means been immune to failure—even the Apollo 11 mission came perilously close to crash-landing on the moon. But Apollo 13 provides the story-tellers with a successful failure and a happy-ending: after an on-board explosion, Jim Lovell and his crew lost the moon but not their lives, managing through a combination of sterling mission-control support and their own skill and luck to return safely to Earth.
For a story whose outcome is well-known, Apollo 13 manages to build to an incredible level of tension and apprehension, easily matching the fictional flights of fancy which regularly reach our cinema screens. More than once while watching it, I wondered why I was so enthralled. It's a good, well-acted, well-made film, pushing all the right buttons: nothing that we haven't come to expect (or at least hope for) from big-budget American movies. What was that extra something which made it so gripping?
Apollo 13's extra something is, as I hinted at the outset, a story which can be read as an allegory for our age. The film is a tale of near-catastrophic technological failure threatening life itself, and of miraculous escape with one amp of power to spare. It's not too much of a stretch to regard that as a metaphor for the fears and hopes of humanity in an age of ecological disaster.
Just think about it. The Saturn V rockets represented human ingenuity at its technological, gas-guzzling, brute-force best. Trusting their lives to that technology, the Apollo astronauts represent us, as we roar into the future towards our goal. Their goal, of course, was the moon, but even that goal was symbolic of greater things: human beings were taking the first steps towards the colonisation of space (which is why, of course, these missions had to be manned in order to underline their significance). Nothing, it seemed, could stop us; and so we seem to believe today, as we march on blithely up the exponential curve of economic growth, discarding stage after stage of our Saturn V rocket (i.e., our world's resources) in the faith that we'll splash down safely at some point in the future.
Today, however, even the most blinkered optimist has reason to harbour subconscious doubts about the wisdom of our present path, and Apollo 13 writes those doubts large. Something goes wrong. Significantly, it's the oxygen supply—a metaphor for the Earth's atmosphere—which has been sabotaged by human error. The astronauts are suddenly faced with a desperate race against time and diminishing resources to get safely home. The higher goal—the moon (or the techno-nirvana goal of a world of 200-odd fully-developed countries)—is abandoned, and the use of resources (the ship's power supply) is shut down to a bare minimum, just as we fear we might have to do back here on Earth in the late 1990s and beyond. The results are depressing: without power, the astronauts' world gets extremely cold, and there's still no guarantee of a safe return in exchange.
Read in this manner, the film is full of environmental messages and metaphors. It was the space missions, of course, which showed the world the first pictures of the Earth as a beautiful blue globe hanging in space, images repeated here as the astronauts wonder if they'll ever get home. In one poignant scene, a cassette-player hanging in zero-gravity slowly runs down as its batteries die. The carbon dioxide levels in the ship's atmosphere increase to dangerous levels. On re-entering the Earth's atmosphere, the biggest fear is that the heat-shields will fail and that life will become fatally hot for the astronauts—global warming, anyone?
I won't labour the point. It's worth noting, however, that the underlying message of Apollo 13, given this environmental reading, might be a dangerously optimistic one. I don't mean because the film shows that the know-how of the NASA staff at Houston safely pulls the mission through: if we can't hope that human ingenuity will similarly save us from disaster back here on earth, then we have no hope at all. No, I mean that the final message of the Apollo 13 story is that there is a definite time-limit to a crisis (in this case, a few days), and at the end of it, if all goes miraculously well, you can sit back and relax in safety and comfort—and even carry on as before. And this, surely, is what a lot of people hope will happen with the global environment. With a bit of temporary sacrifice, we'll fix everything up, and then we can get back to business as usual—just like during and after a war.
Unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily work like that. Dealing with environmental problems will be the ongoing challenge facing us all for centuries to come (if we should be so lucky to last that long), and there's no safe splash-down at the end. Life in the future might be a lot more like huddling together in the cold lunar-module than emerging into the brilliant sunshine with smiles on our faces.