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Leland (Citizen Kane)
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I find it interesting that Kubrick's two most influential films, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and 2001: A Space Odyssey are inextricably linked to the Cold War, the former for obvious reasons, the latter because it depicts what at the time was a logical extrapolation of where technology would be if the Space Race had kept up. The participants on the special feature supplements (which are also available in the second disc of the new standard-def DVD remaster) point out that the main reason why we didn't have orbiting public space stations in the year 2001 had more to do with space 'going out of style' in the '70s.

I followed 2001 up with the fact-based The Right Stuff (on DVD) and Apollo 13 (on HD-DVD), and devoured the special features. Both of these films do editorialize, but one thing they definitely share is a sense of optimistic nationalism, and both were hailed as monuments to the American spirit upon their release. Of course, it would be impossible to make these films work without having the nationalism as historical context, but it is still fascinating for me to think that some of the most amazing accomplishments of the human species boils down to a dick-size contest.


Phillip Kaufman's The Right Stuff often takes this latter point to satirical extremes. As the NASA recruiters, Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer are a vaudeville comedy team, politicians - particularly Lydon Baines Johnson (Donald Moffat) are often lampooned, and the press is portrayed by as a cartoonish horde. The film contrasts the enormous publicity that the Mercury 7 were experiencing before they even accomplished anything with the quiet achievements of Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), and how they had to live up to the hype.

The film was brilliantly cast, as is evidenced by how many then-unknown faces are easily recognizable now. It is also interesting to note the enthusiasm that Ed Harris, Fred Ward and Dennis Quaid (who play John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Gordo Cooper, respectively) still have for the film (the latter relates how he had wanted to play Cooper as soon as he read Tom Wolfe's book), which they all consider to be one of their best film experiences. Indeed, even though one may find some historical inaccuracies here and there, and some things the film doesn't correct for (Grissom's hatch debacle had been long proven by the time of the production to have been most decidedly not his fault; ironically his death on Apollo 1 was caused by the subsequent redesign), ultimately the film captures a moment in history when the entire country got behind a cause, which was to beat the Ruskies to space.

I first saw this film in its original theatrical run in 1983. At the time, it was the longest film that I had ever sat through, but I was riveted the entire time. While I was quite used to malevolent characters/creatures in space, here was a film illustrating how intrinsically dangerous space flight was; how much a person relies on their equipment, as well as the cold indifference of the vacuum outside.

Bill Conti's score is indeed rousing, but it's appearance on the film's music track is something of a mess, with several pieces either mimicking the temp-track or having been outright replaced, and or full-bodied orchestral cues often giving way to electronic cues, often with less than impressive results (Yeager's supersonic flight is an example). I have no idea how much music Conti recorded for the film (I've heard an unmentionable that ran somewhere between thirty and forty minutes). I hope that Varèse does get around to releasing this score soon, as the twenty minute orchestral suite, while rousing and well-performed, only whets the appetite for more.


Apollo 13 actually stands in stark contrast to The Right Stuff in many ways. The satire is completely gone, and while the film does gloss over some of the mission details, they are never dumbed down. Some of what could be considered the more dramatic flourishes of the movie, such as Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) losing her wedding ring down the shower drain shortly before the launch, were depictions of actual events (although admittedly she was able to retrieve it, historically).

I have in the past mentioned this film in a critical light, but that is only because of the presence of the rumbling sound effects in the exterior shots of the spacecraft, which stick out in an otherwise very meticulously recreated historical drama. While I am not generally partial to Ron Howard's movies, this movie allows the tension being generated by the situation without too much Hollywoodisms (the same cannot necessarily be said of The Right Stuff). There are a few moments here and there that are somewhat over-the-top, such as Lovell's moonwalk dream, but they are kept in check for the most part by the procedural nature of the film.

While The Right Stuff focuses on the pilots themselves, while Apollo 13 broadens the palette and pays tribute to the importance of Mission Control as well. Based heavily on the transcripts, the efforts of the ground crew to help save the three astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) are explored in detail. Ed Harris heads up this section of the cast as Gene Kranz (who apparently liked Harris' line "Failure is not an option" so much that he titled his autobiography thus), and the sequences depicting their determination and dedication are inspiring all the more for there not being much in the way of embellishment. The Apollo 13 disaster is, first and foremost, an engineering event, and it is properly treated as such, Kranz's statement (beautifully delivered by Harris), "Let's look at this thing from a... um, from a standpoint of status. What do we got on the spacecraft that's good?"

Back to the fantastic for a moment: Spike's billboards for their presentation of the original three Star Wars movies and their three inbred cousins are pretty funny. "Gold bikinis never go out of style." "A man can only be called 'Annie' so many times before he finally snaps."

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