The Ron Howard Spotlight Collection

The Baltimore Sun

Starring Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks, Kurt Russell Directed by Ron Howard Universal Home Video $39.98 *** 1/2

Ron Howard is far from Hollywood's most consistent director. He can be awful, as in 2000's charmless The Grinch. But when he's on, he's very on. This four-film, eight-disc collection, filled with deleted scenes, documentaries and other extras, brings together two of his best, 2001's A Beautiful Mind, which won a Best Picture Oscar, and 1995's Apollo 13, which should have. It includes the middling Backdraft (1991), an exercise in firefighting bonhomie, and Cinderella Man (2005), which sought to make a saint of boxer Jim Braddock by demonizing poor Max Baer.

Apollo 13 is the real thing, a look at grace under pressure that made intelligence and emotional stability look positively heroic. Tom Hanks stars as Jim Lovell, commander of the moon mission that had the entire world holding its breath for a few days back in 1970. It's nearly unbelievable that Lovell and his crew, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jim Swigert (Kevin Bacon), were able to limp back to Earth after a mid-mission explosion. Howard's steady direction is unafraid to paint something as heroic when that's clearly what it is, recapturing the almost-naive can-do spirit that propelled the American conquest of space.

A Beautiful Mind, the story of mathematician John Nash and his struggles with sanity, may be even better. Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldman do the almost impossible: making math seem understandable and exciting. Nash working out his equations on the clear-glass window panes of the Princeton University library is a wonderful metaphor for both the transient nature and the fragility of genius. Russell Crowe is an inexhaustible bundle of contradictions as Nash, a man able to do anything except keep his own emotions in check, and Jennifer Connelly won a well-deserved Oscar as his preternaturally supportive wife.

Also out today: Will Smith gets to play a boozy, uncouth and uncaring superhero in Hancock ($28.95. Blu-ray $39.95), while Charlize Theron gets to play the woman who may or may not civilize him.

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