Why ‘Apollo 13’ Remains the Most Comforting Competency Porn

     July 2, 2020

apollo-13

Apollo 13 turned 25 this week, and it remains a movie I can watch anytime. It’s not because I’m incredibly into space mission stuff (it’s all well and good, but it’s not like I’ve ever watched For All Mankind or From the Earth to the Moon), but because it’s a movie that’s all about solving problems, which is unusual for most narratives. Traditional narratives thrive on conflict, especially interpersonal conflict. Apollo 13 has one big problem—how to get astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) back home safely—but it’s not even so much about these characters or anyone else. Lovell is the same guy at the end of the movie as he is at the beginning. There’s tension between Swigert and Haise over their circumstances, but the tension does not drive the plot forward. Instead, Apollo 13 is a movie all about solving problems, which makes it a thrilling and satisfying experience.

apollo-13-posterFrom the moment that the spaceship Odyssey suffers a catastrophic failure, the film is all about solving a series of unexpected problems to get the astronauts home. Because all the problems presented are external rather than developed by the characters, there’s an odd sense of security at work. You don’t need to worry that Lovell is suddenly going to become a jerk and jeopardize the mission. Director Ron Howard put the professionalism and reality of this world at the forefront of the movie, so you always buy into the situation as it’s unfolding. Apollo 13 is arguably Howard’s best movie as he’s able to make guys double-checking math equations cinematic and important.

“Let’s work the problem, people,” Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) says as Apollo 13 starts spinning out of control. It’s not that these people are inhuman robots, but rather that this is what they’ve trained for. These really are the smartest people in the room, and when there’s a catastrophic failure happens, they’re all forced to think on their feet and come up with solutions to a cascade of unforeseen problems. The structure of Apollo 13 isn’t really a traditional three-act structure but instead it’s everything leading up to the mission, and then the mission, and once the failure happens, it’s a series of problems that need to be solved. It’s trying to get the Odyssey to stop leaking oxygen; it’s trying to use the Lunar Module as a lifeboat; it’s trying to get the CO2 filters working to literally fit a square peg into a round hole. You also have the overarching problem of how the crew will have enough power to get the ship all the way home.

Howard wisely doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of exactly how these problems are solved. We don’t need to know how they got the air filters to work correctly on the LEM, but we know the parts need to fit and they have to manage a solution. Apollo 13 always walks the line between giving the audience enough information to follow without having some NASA engineer stroll along and say, “Explain it to me like I’m an idiot.” The reality of the situation is always at the forefront even if it has a nice Hollywood sheen.

Watching Apollo 13, you can’t really escape that it’s an atypical film when compared to other movies.  There’s still personal drama and obvious stakes, but the whole story is about trying to make enough fixes to achieve the goal of saving the astronauts. Watching smart people fix problems shouldn’t make for a good movie because it’s about stopping conflict. Conflict is what’s going to kill the astronauts, so they need to create safety. And watching smart, talented people try to create safety is immensely comforting. We can all see right now that competency and expertise means a great deal, and while the events of Apollo 13 really happened, these days it’s a comforting escape to watch people use their expertise and work ethic to save lives.

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