'Apollo 13': Thanks for the memories, whatever they were


To me, the most amazing thing about "Apollo 13," the runaway hit movie, is that I have virtually no memory of "Apollo 13," the actual event.

I'm not talking amnesia here.

What I'm saying is that when it happened, it barely registered.

This doesn't make sense, if you've seen the movie. Three guys are up in space. They're in trouble. They might not make it back. They might, well, die up there. The whole word should be holding its breath.

But I don't remember any breath-holding.

I remember -- or maybe I remember, I'm not sure -- thinking that the NASA science-geeks with the pencils and slide rules in the shirt pocket will get our boys back. There were arguments then about whether the new technology was good or bad, but we used to believe it was, at the least, dependably miraculous.

In any case, I don't recall any prayer vigils. People didn't spend day and night around the TV set like they did when, say, Baby Jessica was trapped in the well. Of course, there was no CNN then. There was no round-the-clock news. You had to go to sleep and wake up to get the news.

Or maybe it was only my generation that didn't notice.

This was April 1970 -- just after the secret bombing of Cambodia and right before Kent State. I was in college. Maybe I was preoccupied.

Nobody can argue with the original premise, which is that, at first, nobody much cared about the launch. Neil Armstrong had already made his giant leap. Alan Shepard had hit his golf balls.

After a while, the moon shots started to seem redundant. How many moon rocks do you actually need?

It seemed time to move on.

But then came the crisis.

The movie, which is terrific and not just for the weightlessness scenes, takes us back to the time with the actual newscasts. There's Uncle Walter Cronkite wiping away a tear. There's stolid Chet Huntley betraying his concern. If you watch, you think America came together the way America always comes together.

Except I'm not sure it happened that way.

The space crisis I remember best from that era was in the Davie Bowie song about Major Tom.

What the movie clearly shows is the parallel universe in which NASA and the flyboys operated. Let's just say it wasn't Woodstock, which came the summer before.

Tom Hanks (going for an Oscar three-peat) plays Jim Lovell, who was commander of the mission and whose family was right out of "Leave It to Beaver," except this time the Beaver was in military school.

There were brief allusions to the times. There was the teen-age daughter who was so rebellious that she threatened to wear tie-dye. This was a family crisis. The funny thing is, in some families, that was a family crisis.

Jimi Hendrix played in the background, but deep in the background.

The '60s weren't their story.

"Apollo 13" basically ignored the chaos outside Houston and Cape Kennedy. Some critics have suggested a political motive, saying that "Apollo 13" takes the same revisionist view of the era as "Forrest Gump." I think they missed the point.

The movie gives us the world in which these guys lived. "Forrest Gump" misrepresents that time. The astronauts believed in heroes. They believed they could be heroes themselves. "The Right Stuff" told that story.

Ed Harris, who steals the movie as mission control chief Gene Kranz, is a techno-version of the American hero. He's got a control pad instead of a horse or a gun.

"Failure," he says, "is not an option." And you damn well believe him, even as the suspense is nearly killing you.

I think the movie is a hit for a couple of reasons. One is that it tells of a time when America got things done and nobody talked about downsizing. It was, "We're going to the moon, man."

But the real draw is the suspense. It's not hokey. It's not fake. The pregnant wife of the astronaut doesn't go into labor. The kid at military school doesn't contract a fatal disease. The stuff in outer space was plenty. And so was the stuff on the ground where geeky guys in geeky glasses save the day.

And, although you know the ending going in, the suspense is so well done, you think you'll never forget it.

Maybe this time I won't.

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