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Ordinary Heroism

By Taara Ness-Cochinwala

[1] After twenty-five years of Apollo 13 laying dormant out of the media, Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger released the best selling book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, followed by Ron Howard's academy-award-winning film Apollo 13. In a period in which violence was on the rise and the good old days were quickly being forgotten, Howard redefined what a hero is, showing America that even ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

[2] 1970, the year of the Apollo 13 mission was extremely chaotic and riddled with conflict: the Vietnam War, the Kent State shooting, the Civil Rights Movement, and more. In this period of immense turmoil, Apollo 13 provided something that brought millions of people from all different backgrounds together over their common concern for humanity: "Americans looked across the Pacific and saw defeat. They looked at their campuses and saw revolt; at their inner cities and saw flames. For inspiration there was nowhere to look but up" (Corliss 4). While the general public was apathetic towards the mission to begin with, all watched with bated breath for the uncertain outcome. President Nixon even recalled receiving over 100 messages of good will from foreign governments. Upon meeting the astronauts after splashdown, he stated, "You did not reach the moon. But you reached the hearts of millions of people on earth by what you did." Upon splashdown, these three regular men, and those at Mission Control were etched into the history books as steely-eyed missile men, true heroes, for life.

[3] Similar to the year 1970, 1995, the year of the film's release, had its own version of chaos, this time in the form of violence. While the economy was booming, so too were the violent outbreaks in America and around the world. 1995 was the year of the infamous Oklahoma City bombing in which 168 people, including eight federal marshals and 19 children were killed; the Unabomber committed his final attacks and the published his manifesto; O.J. Simpson walked free on the highly controversial double murder of his ex-wife and friend; the Iraq Disarmament Crisis occurred; the popular Latina singer Selena was murdered; a nerve gas attack in Japan killed twelve and hospitalized over 5,000; the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated while trying to pursue peace in Palestine; there were massacres in Bosnia; and to top it all off, it was the 50th anniversary of dropping the atomic bomb, which devastated and killed hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children.

[4] It would seem that the general public was again in need of something to bring them together and reestablish their faith in humanity and the heroes within it. That something once again came in the form of Apollo 13 -- this time the film version. Director Howard stated that "The one thing we knew we could do is offer the audience the experience of what it was like to live through the Apollo 13 mission, and I believed that would be a compelling reason to make the movie and a compelling reason for people to want to see it." By allowing the audience the chance to experience the adventure along with those ordinary men who became American heroes, he inspired a sense of patriotism and optimism in humanity and human ingenuity.

[5] Howard allowed the general public to believe that the violence and cynicism that surrounded them could be overcome, even by your average Joe: "This ordinariness was emphasized in Apollo 13, in scenes in which Lovell gets drunk at the Apollo 11 moonwalk party, or Swigert forgets to file his income taxes, or Haise vomits just after launch. Such elements of the movie tied into the common man aspect of American myth and helped create audience identification with the characters and story (Opt 9). Thus, Howard challenged the status quo and reshaped the definition of a hero with the notion that anyone and everyone could do something extraordinary.

[6] Richard Corliss commented that "the Apollo astronauts were portrayed as heroes of the old world; God-fearin', jut-jawed, steely-eyed misslemen, gazing into the skies they would soon conquer" (4). Howard's film brought back part of the good old days -- the "old world heroes." This ultimately proved to be the antidote for the violence that was surrounding the nation and beyond. The film became an instant success and won countless awards; the public couldn't get enough of the feel-good vibe and epic tale of adventure when it needed it most. The timing of both the mission and film were keys in the effect they had on the public. While the mission occurred during immense political and social strife, compounded with increasing apathy towards the space program, Apollo 13 enlivened the people, their patriotism, and the human bond across national borders. The film, too, was released at a chaotic time; the public's vision was clouded by violence, and they had all but forgotten about this historic event, often called NASA's finest hour. Yet again the story had the power to bring people together and inspire even the most unlikely hero.

[7] Whether planned or not, this film could not have been released at a more strategic time. One day prior to the release of the film, the two entities that had competed so ferociously in the Space Race, the United States and Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), worked together to accomplish something man had never succeeded in before. On June 29, 1995, the US Space Shuttle Atlantis docked at Russian space station MIR to form the largest man-made satellite to ever orbit the Earth. This event began a decade of cooperation between the former competitors. Demonstrating the spirit of teamwork and ingenuity, these two space programs had done something heroic, once never thought possible, and the film was released the following day.

[8] This event inspired the same message as the film about heroism, human ingenuity, and teamwork that crosses boundaries and borders. The entire world had just witnessed men that were considered ordinary or common two days prior do something unexpected and astonishing, to become heroic. With the proof that it was possible from this event, and Howard's film capitalizing on the message, Apollo 13 seemed to be just what the doctor ordered for the down-trodden public: "Ron Howard's film pays tribute to the signal and endangered American virtues of individual ingenuity and team spirit" (Corliss 3). He redefines the notion of what a hero is and challenges us all to do something extraordinary, and become one.