Apollo 13 Premieres on Turner Classic Movies

On Saturday, February 27 (check local listings), Turner Classic Movies (TCM) airs Universal’s 1995 box office hit, Apollo 13. As with all its featured movies, TCM will air the movie unedited and without interruption.

This is at once an engaging, intelligent and intimate movie, one of both director Ron Howard’s and leading man Tom Hanks’ best pictures, and well worth seeing once and again.

I remember first seeing it in a movie theater in Glendale, California with a friend. I still recall the experience; the theater was packed and everyone seemed affected and moved. Only 10 years later, upon a second viewing and reflection on assignment for a movie review, did I think twice about the experience. Read my 2005 review, including thoughts on the anniversary DVD edition, here.

Apollo13PatchBesides the review, I also added a feature article about the Apollo space program to the archives. It was an article I started writing after seeing the movie again and attending a Universal press junket at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Because my thesis was (and remains) that it’s an excellent movie if viewed a certain way and that its theme is troubling at best, I began to think about, challenge and question why Hollywood’s only major feature films about manned space programs were generally either negative about manned space flight or focused on what goes wrong.

What I discovered during my research about the press coverage, cultural attitudes and responses to America’s historic space program—which was denounced by an American president—helped me to better understand today’s culture, the antipathy toward heroism and the rampant anti-heroism in movies. Read the article, “Measuring the Apollo Missions”, which includes links to the NASA history, pictures and a detailed chronology of Apollo 13’s events, here.

In retrospect, my 2005 coverage of Apollo 13 and the manned space program shaped my own negative views on NASA and its Space Shuttle program, which was established by President Nixon and is, in many ways, the antithesis of the Apollo program. The motion picture industry and the space program are both fabulously successful examples of the manmade which are uniquely catapulted by extraordinary advancements in technology. Movies, such as The Martian, can give audiences a vision of the future of space exploration which is possible to mankind, and it is up to scientists to make such visions realistic and relevant to people’s lives and it is up to philosophers to explain why it matters, as Ayn Rand did when she attended the 1969 launch of Apollo 11 and wrote about it afterwards. With private space travel becoming reality, it’s worth noting that Hollywood visionaries have yet to make a movie that depicts the great, strenuous effort that goes into getting science and space exploration exactly right—not merely fixing something when it goes wrong.

In the meantime, Apollo 13 and The Martian will have to do.

Related Links

Movie and Anniversary Edition DVD Review: Apollo 13

Measuring the Apollo Missions: A History and Analysis (2005)


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The 2016 Iowa Caucuses

The nation’s disunity was on display in America’s Hawkeye state tonight. Iowa’s caucuses, which resulted in thin margins in both major parties, indicate that this year’s presidential nominations may be close and contentious. Iowa’s election signals a crucial contest among five major candidates for president of the United States (read my thoughts on the GOP’s first debate here, my complete fall 2015 roundup of candidates here and my analysis of the GOP’s Reagan library debate here). In terms of supporting individual rights and the unity and defense of the nation, one candidate comes out ahead, if not on top.

Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, locked in a close Democratic Party race with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave one of the most vitriolic political speeches in recent memory. He denounced the wealthy and those who work on Wall Street, targeting them for persecution with wild-eyed raging abandon, and, as I wrote last fall citing the elections of Barack Obama, he can be nominated and he can be elected president. As of this writing, Mrs. Clinton is running ahead by a narrow margin, and I think that once the reality that raging socialist Sanders, similarly to raging statist Donald Trump in the GOP, could get the nomination sets in among Democrats, the race could shift in her favor. Despite the fact that she has no real accomplishments of her own, and, like Jeb Bush, she is a reminder of the repudiated and disastrous policies of the Clinton-Bush past, former Sen. Clinton is not as morally repugnant as Sen. Sanders, who explicitly seeks to bring the nation’s republican government to an end.

IACaucuses2016As bad as she is, and her record of censorship alone disqualifies her, Sanders is horrifying to any freedom-loving American, however softly he peddles his version of government control. Democrats may figure this out as early as next week in New Hampshire and go with the candidate who does not express open hostility for—and the intent to destroy—people who make money. Or the rowdy Sanders supporters who adopt the Orwellian motto that means pain is gain—warning voters that they will feel the Bern while sadistically demanding that they take it—could win the New Left argument and prevail in nominating the New England socialist as their candidate for president of the United States. Clinton’s basic value proposition remains her sex as her sole identity, a flimsy basis made flimsier by the lousy results of the last identity politics president, President Obama. This works in Sanders’ favor because he argues based on ideas, not his sex. No one mistakes Hillary Clinton as a candidate of consistent ideas and it is unlikely, if not too late, for her to become one.

The Republican victor last night was Ted Cruz, the first-term senator from Texas, who won last night’s Iowa caucuses by a few decisive points over Trump, who had predicted a “tremendous” victory hours before he became the loser. The three-way results included Florida’s first-term Sen. Marco Rubio snapping at Trump’s heels because Rubio consolidated panicked status quo voters that reject both Trump and Cruz as “extremists”. Rubio, who is smooth talking and inconsistent in his political philosophy, was first elected to the U.S. Senate as the Tea Party insurgent not long ago. Now, he’s almost the last man standing in for Bush, Christie, Kasich and other welfare state Republicans that appease and accommodate leftists and Democrats. That doesn’t mean Rubio can’t win, not in the Grand Old Party that constantly delivers milquetoast candidates and Rubio’s pro-surveillance state position ought to be enough to motivate Washington’s military-industrial complex’s support. But at some point Rubio has to make a case and win a primary and it’s still hard for me to see that happening from such a shallow candidate. Rubio could win by default.

Donald Trump, who opposes capitalism, property rights and free choice in medicine—he told ABC News that he thinks that health care is a right—remains a factor for now and his appeal continues to be fed by status quo Republicans and conservatives and leftists in the media feeding off his sensationalist tactics. Americans, as I wrote last fall, increasingly seek a strongman—a dictator—and this is a real threat to the country. Trump, who resembles crony businessman Orren Boyle more than productive businessman Hank Rearden in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, suits this spreading American zest for fascism. This leaves Cruz, in all his religious zealotry and huckster charms, as the candidate potentially most serious about averting the nation from the destruction brought on by Obama’s devastating presidency.

This, too, is how Cruz’s flaws, which I named in 2013, may be his best argument among a field of rotten candidates (and 2016 certainly offers that). The case against Cruz is often that he will say anything to get elected. Almost all of them appear to do that. On the most urgent problems facing the United States of America, however, Ted Cruz offers some of the best solutions. He pledges to kill the Islamic terrorists, repeal ObamaCare and begin to repair the damage done to America’s once-partly capitalist economy. Unfortunately, he also vows to inject religion into the government, too, and this is not an endorsement. But he is the only candidate of the five major contenders to emerge from the first election of 2016’s presidential campaign to take these problems seriously and with respect to the founding ideals of the republic. This is reason to take Ted Cruz seriously, especially as the alternative to Trump, the GOP candidate of government control, which makes the 2016 Iowa caucuses a sign of the nation’s bleak political statesmanship and leaves me with the knowledge that it could have been worse.

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Movie Review: The Finest Hours

TheFinestHoursPosterThe first new movie I’ve seen in the new year, The Finest Hours, seeds its sea-based tale of heroics by the Coast Guard during a 1950s rescue operation with many—too many—interesting themes. The somewhat disjointed Disney movie, made with several writers and the director of the excellent Lars and the Real Girl, Craig Gillespie, is pieced together for an exciting, involving and challenging fact-based finish. The Finest Hours (screened in 3D) opens this Friday.

Chris Pine (Into the Woods, Star Trek) stars as an everyman in the United States Coast Guard near Cape Cod in the early 1950s. This was long before the government made the Coast Guard a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, as it is now. The Coast Guardsman back then was seen chiefly as “always ready” to conduct life-saving rescue. Pine’s character, Bernie, is sweet on a modern woman (Holliday Grainger, Cinderella). But his work comes first and he goes by the rules, and, more centrally, the code of honor which governs the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Finest Hours centers upon the young couple until the storm comes. Anyone who’s seen the advertising or the poster knows that the oil tanker Pendleton breaks in half during the massive storm at sea. Bernie is sent out to rescue them. Meanwhile, men on the tanker are led by Casey Affleck’s character to buy time to save themselves. That anyone could survive in this weather is a dubious idea and Gillespie does a good job of instilling suspense that all is neither lost nor easily found. The Finest Hours makes the audience wait to find out what happens.

It also caters to the audience across the spectrum. Psalms, rosary beads, prayers and talk of luck counter the leading men going by reason, trusting their own judgment, skills and abilities. Add to this engineering quality, which is reminiscent of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, that the Massachusetts town must unite its wives, fishermen and seafarers and resolve past losses at sea and The Finest Hours indulges its action with a good buildup of character-based tension and interlocking subplots, including a welcome contrast between family men and Affleck’s single man. In a rare depiction of the hero asserting himself for his own sake, the unmarried, childless leader proclaims his value rather than sacrifice himself at the altar of the traditional, the familial and the God-fearing.

The Finest Hours incorporates several such promising plot points—another theme is that life’s problems come in waves, keep coming and must be met with a steady sense of purpose—and, though it doesn’t fully cash in and bring them together as it should, it also doesn’t let everything come apart. Credit goes to Pine’s understated performance, even if he looks too polished after being plunged under frigid waters several times. The Finest Hours is not as taut and moving as Disney’s superior Coast Guard picture, 2006’s The Guardian, but it is thrilling, surprising and, despite some head-scratching or unnecessary scenes and characters, rightly reverent about those fearless heroes of thought and action who rescue people in trouble at sea.

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Movie Review: Joy

David O. Russell’s movie Joy, which he co-wrote and directed, succeeds in its mission a bit too well for its own good. The title refers to the main character’s name, Joy, portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games). She’s terribly put upon, creative and smart and she bears a burden by choice that she carries throughout her quest to retain her youthful idealism.

It’s a noble pursuit dramatized with the familiar method, writing and cast employed by Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle), so Lawrence is joined again by Robert De Niro (New York, New York) as her father and Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) as her business affiliate. The cast shines and layered themes come into curious and creative play as Joy—a harried daughter, mother, granddaughter, ex-wife, airline agent and would-be inventor—attempts to remake herself as an entrepreneur. The catalyst is Joy’s faith; her belief in herself, her family and humanity.

This becomes Joy‘s problem, too.

JoyPosterThat’s because faith in oneself is not the same as confidence in oneself, which is in reality what Joy—a characterization based upon a real businesswoman—must possess in order to do what she does. What she does is amazing, all the more so because she’s up against so many complicating factors such as an ex-husband who is also her friend, parents who are both delusional in their own ways and a business plan that’s contingent upon an heiress (Isabella Rosellini getting feisty) who has more chutzpah than chops when it comes to backing up the business. Much of Joy is fun to watch and appreciate for its core truths about a host of cleverly conceived and implanted ideas—keeping one’s reason in a world gone mad, cleaning up other people’s messes, making and doing one’s own business—and the writing and performances give it a glow.

Joy’s confidence permits her to invent an innovative mop (inspired by cleaning others’ messes) that lets the cleaner keep clean. Joy fights for it from design, rights and manufacturing to sales and distribution, even confining herself to what she sees as the best funding sources and counsel. The concept makes sense, persuades in its proof of concept test, meets a demand and her grandmother (Diane Ladd) reaffirms her belief in Joy while her young daughter is a strong source of support, so Joy’s confidence is reinforced and well founded. With Joy’s flashbacks to a lost childhood amid bickering parents signalling a serious rediscovery of her ego, Joy sets the scene for the perfect cashing in. Cooper’s proto-capitalist, citing self-made Hollywood moguls and visionary theories about media as a means for mass commercialism—emphasizing quality, value and convenience with help from none other than Joan Rivers—ups the ante for a jackpot.

But appearing to make the case for confidence through capitalism comes at the expense of the picture’s theme, which is based on more ordinary ideas. The clues are peppered throughout Joy. An early flashback hints at the outcome. Joy keeps saying that she’s following what others tell her to do when things go wrong, though she never takes pride—she takes charge, she takes responsibility but she never really takes credit or pride—when things go right. A crucifix figures into an important scene. This absence of pride (and, yes, joy) leaves the residue of what can best be described as counterfeit egoism; a movie that purports to be about reclaiming oneself which depicts neither the reclamation nor the main character’s esteem of herself.

This accounts for the letdown when, in a crucial scene when the entrepreneurial dust settles, Joy, having expended the energy of meltdowns, shakedowns and staredowns, goes blank and decidedly joyless. Joy, it turns out, is selfless and, worse from my perspective, she chooses this path to fulfill some distorted childish notion that she needs to want no one. This after the best serious moneymaker makeover scene since Mike Nichols‘ 1988 triumphant love story of Wall Street, capitalism and man-woman equality, Working Girl.

By confusing and swapping faith and confidence as it figures into one’s ability to make money, Joy falters in achieving its apparently intended movie poster moment, with snowflakes, enlightenment and Christmastime. There’s plenty to appreciate, from a decent character role for Virginia Madsen as a neurotic mother to the fine nuances of depicting the ups and downs of a startup enterprise and the wonder of seeing Melissa Rivers as Joan Rivers at cable TV’s QVC as I think she was. Joy has its wonders and I think its implied theme that belief and sacrifice come at the expense of one’s enjoyment is true. But in doing so it dims the audience’s enjoyment, too.

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Movie Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Paramount Pictures’ war movie about the September 11 Islamic attack on America at Benghazi, Libya, is both visceral and powerful. Coincidentally, and I say this because I’m not a fan of the director’s work, it’s the best movie directed by Michael Bay (Transformers: Age of Extinction).

In fact, this gripping account of what exactly happened in those 13 hours does not depict exactly what happened, not in a comprehensive sense, but the character-driven movie is one of the better pictures about the long, unnamed, undeclared, unending military conflict between Islamic jihadists and the West. I can’t speak to the film’s fidelity to what did or did not happen. 13 Hours is based upon a book by the men who were there, the only Americans to defend the U.S. assets and Americans attacked (read what I posted about the 2012 attack here).

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi begins as most of these types of movies do with titles and setup scenes to establish what many already may know about the Libya crisis. During the days of the so-called Arab spring, when American intellectuals became convinced that the West’s meddling in Middle East, Arab and regional affairs would lead to liberalization of Arab and other area dictatorships (it didn’t, hasn’t and won’t), Libya’s longtime dictator was ousted—so was Egypt’s—with tacit or explicit U.S. military support. All of this U.S. military meddling instead destabilized Africa and the Middle East and put Islamists in power. Today, for instance, Libya is in serious peril of falling completely to the Islamic state. But a few years ago no one could convince Washington, DC—from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the left to Ambassador John Bolton, who supported Obama’s attack on Libya, on the right—that removing dictators in countries vulnerable to Islamic jihadist insurgency was a terrible idea.

13HoursPosterMichael Bay’s movie version of the military mens’ book does not delve into that background or context, though it’s surprisingly thoughtful and layered in depicting the film’s unseen villain: the state. Yes, this abstraction is at the plot’s center of what really threatens and endangers the characters, heroes and American interests in 13 Hours; both the unseen, unnamed states that sponsor Islamic acts of war and the elusive American state that enables, appeases and essentially supports states that sponsor Islamic acts of war. While 13 Hours breaks no new ground in storytelling, and needs improvements and edits, this villainy is carefully embedded, probably thanks to the book’s writers and screenwriter Chuck Hogan (The Town).

The world at large is at stake from the start, as Bay offers a view of the globe from space, then a drone’s lens’ view common to this genre before the main character (The Office‘s John Krasinski, excellent in Aloha and also here) sits on a passenger jet bound for post-U.S. intervention Libya. Clearly, his character values life. He is fully facial-haired, too, a common choice among American contractors in Libya, so he’s trying to blend into today’s increasingly unstable world, in this case a society where beards show that one has faith and is not an infidel. After he looks at a fellow passenger—a head-scarved woman of indeterminate designs—the camera cuts to the exterior of the descending plane as it lowers, drifts and blends into Libya’s beige, desolate landscape.

This sets an ominous tone. Tension builds as soon as Krasinski’s soldier meets his fellow soldiers at a secret CIA facility and they’re assigned to accompany an undercover couple in Benghazi. The head honcho (David Costabile, Lincoln) embodying the worst bureaucratic stereotype, represents the left’s mindlessness in practice, spewing forth that the band of bodyguards, because they are strong, military contractors not intellectuals who went to Harvard or Yale, are “not so good at following orders”. Of course, he means this as an insult, even though it affirms that Ivy League schools turn out followers.

Not following orders is precisely what makes the difference in the battle of Benghazi.

It happens on 9/11. The year is 2012. Someone at the CIA compound watches a news clip of the hijacked passenger jet as it veers into the World Trade Center on 9/11 of 2001. Someone says something about an Islamic attack in Cairo. Any but the most daft could have predicted that Benghazi would require serious security precautions and defense.

Enter U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, an altruist and “true believer” in the Obama administration’s policy of sacrificing for the sake of others, an explicit rejection of selfishness as an ethical virtue which Stevens practices to a tee. The ambassador, the men of the security detail are informed, insists, in accordance with the left’s multiculturalist fantasies, upon his own reckless procedures. He chooses to stay at a posh, unsecured open compound. He makes other bad choices, too, some of which are overturned. But he is willful and explicit in his altruism: “America is here for you,” he tells a local Libyan gathering. He means it. America is not there to advance its interest, not even to foster mutual understanding and peace. America—the new America outlined in Obama’s inaugural worldwide apology tour—is there to serve others, period.

It’s the Obama (and Bush, McCain, etc.) way: put others above self.

Time and again in 13 Hours, a heart-pounding tale which comes in waves, altruism and its particular execution through an effete left-wing lunacy is vilified by dramatization. Not as sculpted as the brilliant portrayal of a sacrificed soldier in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, Krasinski’s posted soldier, too, misses his life at home, strives to be his best, and learns from the devastating attack in Benghazi. While he bonds, leads and pivots around the ambushes, schemes and nuances of these deadly days and hours, his wife and kids gain admittance at Disneyland. It’s the perfectly secular, American contrast to the mindless, faith-based wails in Arabic that “God is great!” And if thoughts of his family at the happiest place on earth bolster his fighting spirit, the reality of his brethren at the most miserable place on earth—where “we got nothin’ and no one”—weighs heavily on his conscience.

“What a shit show”, one of his fellow secret soldiers concludes after the blood spills and Americans are murdered—yet again—with no support from the U.S. military, which never does show up. The brutal 13 Hours, with piercing battle scenes as  Islamists lay siege upon the Americans, shows what happens when those with delusions reign over those with knowledge. One officious character offers a stinging lesson in earned guilt. Others among the soldiers talk and trade stories of life and love on the downtime and this is their story foremost. The cast is suited to the material.

But 13 Hours does not stop at depicting the men who are engaged in today’s constant state of American military altruism. The State Department and Obama administration officials are an unseen, offscreen presence, represented on screen by the intelligence types that buy into Obama’s diplomacy and surveillance state as the total solution to all foreign problems. Decent, pro-Western Arabs are also on screen, fighting for their country and their lives, though they are tiny in number and have a minimal impact.

The most exciting scene involves a Mercedes-Benz that makes a wrong turn. It’s the toughest movie motor car since Patriot Games and it’s a symbol for the audience; a reminder that toughness has limits and can be breached. It is impossible while watching 13 Hours, which I think every American ought to see, to escape thoughts of Islamic terrorist attacks on Americans in Paris, San Bernardino, Boston, Fort Hood, Garland, Beirut, Berlin and countless passenger planes, cruise ships and hotels. It’s been 15 years since the Twin Towers, Pentagon and thousands of lives were breached and destroyed and the enemy looms. The horror of being abandoned to insurgents in an Islamic siege with no hope for U.S. military intervention—in Obama’s America, you’re on your own—is forecast in the faces of the men murdered in the inferno at the U.S. consulate and those slaughtered and maimed in the assault that followed.

Compounding the effect: the men you’re watching are trained for battle. You, the audience, probably are not.

“Watch for different tactics,” one secret soldier says during another siege. But how can the U.S. government—whose primary purpose is to defend America and Americans—watch when they refuse to see? In the end, it’s an oil businessman’s jet—running on the energy source the Obama administration does everything to oppose—that offers safe passage for what’s left of the living. Watch the movie’s sole female operative for a complete arc from mindless automaton to fully functional human and try to appreciate that making this movie is itself a courageous act of defiance against the United States government. Or don’t. But take 13 Hours for what it is—an intense and powerful account of one small battle in the Islamic barbarians’ war against the West—with its cautionary theme and warning that, in the words of one brave soldier, “this isn’t over…’til they’re all dead or we are.”

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