A Guy Type Thing


Washington. -- History may well remember this as the summer when "Apollo 13" was the most popular movie and House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "To Renew America" topped the best-seller list.

Is this a coincidence? Is there a connection? What does this say about America today?

Last week "Apollo 13" was the highest grossing film for the fourth straight week, topping $111 million in total receipts and still climbing. "It's not supposed to happen that a movie does business like this," says Brian Grazer, its producer.

No, especially not when the movie breaks so many of the usual rules for Hollywood success. For one thing, we already know the ending. Everybody remembers Apollo 13 as the moon mission that did not succeed and almost cost its crew their lives.

For another, its director, Ron Howard, and everyone else involved in it took pains to reproduce its events as accurately as possible -- no robots, aliens, lasers or megazords -- even though real-life space stuff is a slow-moving snooze compared to "Star Wars."

The last big real-life space movie, "The Right Stuff," stiffed at the box office, sending the signal to Hollywood moguls that Americans wanted their space stories to have aliens.

But, after having endured "Casper," "Batman Forever" and "Power Rangers: The Movie" with my 6-year-old son, I think "Apollo 13" succeeds precisely because it does not have robots, aliens, lasers or megazords. This has been the summer of discontent for those of us seeking quality entertainment for an audience above the grade-school level.

I think the movie also works for reasons that are not easily portrayed in movie ads. Like "Forrest Gump," whose star Tom Hanks reappears as the star astronaut in "Apollo 13," it captures values Americans like to think are deeply embodied in the national character: vision, adventure, teamwork, the pioneer spirit and heroism of a sort that ordinary people perform when their lives and those of others depend on it.

In this summer of the fallen and disgraced (O.J. Simpson, Susan Smith, Hugh Grant and "The Good Ol' Boys Roundup"), "Apollo 13" helps restore one's faith that genuine heroism still occurs and is still possible, for the team on the ground as well as the one up in space.

And there's something else: "Apollo 13" is a good "guy" movie.

Reporter Tamar Lewin recently mused in the New York Times "Hers" column that there are "boy books and girl books." I believe there also are guy movies and gal movies.

Under "boy books," she lists books about "ideas (Italo Calvino), the landscape (Cormac McCarthy) or the action (Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy)." Girl books are about "relationships, families, feelings and the details of daily life. Think Jane Austen, Margaret Drabble, Alice Hoffman, Toni Morrison or Amy Tan, or the cross-writers, male authors like Henry James or Anthony Trollope who wrote girl books despite themselves."

Guys have gotta love "Apollo 13." If ever there was a techno-macho thriller, this is it, armed with nothing but slide rules (!), wits and sheer determination in the age before supercomputers could give them a hand.

That, to me, is where Mr. Gingrich's book comes in. It, too, fills a gap in this season -- the political season. Conservatives yearn for a hero, too. Those who think Bob Dole too moderate, Phil Gramm too abrasive, Pat Buchanan too outrageous and Pete Wilson too opportunistic yearn for the perky optimism of a Ronald Reagan, a Margaret Thatcher or a Jack Kemp.

While Mr. Gingrich decides whether to run, he offers the perky optimism of his book, which is long on perky optimism, although woefully short on suggestions for actual legislation.

Mr. Gingrich proposes to "renew" us with a vision taken from the Norman Rockwell '50s and a lot of guy things: "information age" computers, talk radio and the flat tax. It's not new, but it will please those who think of Rush Limbaugh as entertainment.

Like Rush, Speaker Newt tells us with remarkably unflinching certainty about the Way Things Ought to Be (It's a guy thing, you understand), without boring us with any of the legislative details of how we might get there. Legislation inevitably involves pain to somebody and pain does not sell books.

Or, for that matter, movies. "Apollo 13" is blessedly devoid of that era's pain, too. Remember Vietnam, urban riots, assassinations, white backlash, the SDS Weather Underground and "the hard-core unemployed"? All are pushed mercifully out of sight, out of mind.

I guess unhappy endings don't sell movie tickets -- or books.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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