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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)


Capitalism on Chicagoland’s North Shore

Spending my youth in the suburbs north of Chicago often made me curious about its origins. There were exotic American Indian names, mysterious trails, woods and tales of corruption, scandal and murder amid the lush, green bluffs and flat, fertile soil, not to mention the lakefront, the railroad and the industry. I know I’m scratching the surface, but I’m enjoying writing about the towns, villages and enclaves north of Chicago in a newspaper history series I conceived and developed with my editor, David Sweet, earlier this year.

The theme is capitalism—the entrepreneurial spirit—on Chicagoland’s North Shore.

Glencoe, Illinois waiting station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

Talking with local and regional historians, curators and scholars, my research yields new takes on local myths and legends, facts about iconic names, dates and places and, above all, clarity about the men who forged new paths, pioneered Northern Illinois, fought for the Union during the Civil War and settled some of the nation’s most creative, productive and wealthiest towns. These men were largely men of vision and reason and they were farmers, frontiersmen, traders, industrialists and, mostly, individualists. Telling their stories, including notorious facts in the history of these towns, is more rewarding than I had thought possible when I first offered to write the articles.

These front page and cover story articles, which include bits on America’s first recorded serial killer, the only bridge ever designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright and the invention of Christmas bubble lights, Girl Scout cookies and Frenchmens’, Indians’ and religionists’ plans for the area near and along Lake Michigan north of Chicago, are currently available online for free. Read about Glenview, Wilmette and Glencoe. Know that there are more stories to come.


Murder in Kenilworth

Feature: Teen Depression and Suicide on Chicago’s North Shore

Sheridan Road: My First Intellectual Activism

Sheridan Road: Former State Senator Roger Keats

Sheridan Road: Interview with Kathryn Cameron Porter

Movie Review: Suffragette


Suffragette is a haunting portrayal of woman as activist.

Depicting an often silent, secret sisterhood bonded by women’s shared endurance of oppression, director Sarah Gavron, who discussed the movie at a screening I recently attended, layers several characters deftly created by writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) and delivers an emotionally powerful elegy to the feminine rebel. Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby, Public Enemies) as a composite, not true to life, character is marvelous in the lead.

Mulligan carries the movie, which can be cold, distant and slow. Also, and this is important, to what extent Suffragette in its final estimates is based on history is dubious, probably wrong, and the picture’s feminist bent, which glorifies terrorism as a tactic, distorts the truth of injustice against women. It is difficult to pinpoint the source of this problem in Suffragette, as it is not always apparent in any movie whom to credit or blame, but the role of the British suffragette movement for “votes for women” in obtaining individual rights or similar or equal treatment under the law for women is exaggerated, possibly to fantastic proportions. Suffragette makes a real, causal connection which most likely does not exist, a matter for historians to address, and it welds progress for the rights of women to collectivism, anti-capitalism and altruism when, in fact, the opposite is true.

But its heroine, Mulligan’s Maud Watts, is Suffragette‘s best case to the contrary. Maud is a worker, a wife and a mother and, without proper historical exposition, the movie subtly puts her front and center of the British women’s suffrage movement. She herself is a victim of a terrorist attack on private property on London’s posh West End at the film’s beginning in 1912 and she is accordingly disposed against such initiation of force. Maud is also a victim of abuse by a male boss at the laundry where she works, so she seeks to express herself through protest and exercise her right to free association with the militant women, led by a medical practitioner played by Helena Bonham Carter (Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The King’s Speech), known as suffragettes (the terms suffrage, suffragist and suffragette are neither addressed nor explained).

Maud is moved by a desire to improve her own station in life, including a desire to make more money, and she clearly loves both her husband (excellent Ben Whishaw) and her son, George (heartbreaking Adam Michael Dodd). Maud, who does not show contempt for those who make more money, is not motivated by a desire to sacrifice herself for others. She does not define herself solely by the fact that she’s a woman.

She wants to live as an individual with rights. For this reason, it is Maud above the rest in whom the moral of the violent story resides. Though Gavron’s gray London cinematography, blurred action scenes and wordless signals keep an emphasis on action, or on “deeds, not words”, Maud Watts becomes a distinctive character, presence and heroine. While her husband teaches son George to worship a government leader, whose portrait hangs in their modest home, Mrs. Watts, like others who become aware of the law’s unequal treatment of certain people, is rightly skeptical of the state. Like a congressman calling out to the president from the floor of Congress, the suffragettes shout “Liar!” to a government spokesman. Their intellectual leader, portrayed by Meryl Streep (Into the Woods, The Giver, Hope Springs, The Iron Lady), openly seeks to “incite” women to “defy this government”, which ought to evoke today’s Tea Party activists and cause leftists to think twice. Streep’s cameo includes a line which reflects the movie’s Patrick Henry-inspired moral theme that it is better to “be a rebel than a slave.”

As this applies to giggling, politically indifferent and impish Maud Watts, whose treatment by police, boss and husband don’t so much cause her radicalization as affirm her conviction that there is no halfway point between subservience to the state and advocacy for her own rights, a weary, sad story animates her decline and liberation. It is enhanced with a penetrating and powerful score by Alexandre Desplat. It is underscored by the relationship between Maud and a grizzled police chief played by Brendan Gleeson (Green Zone). Gleeson, too, is magnificent in every scene with Mulligan. Theirs is the core of marking the success of Suffragette‘s somewhat transparent activism, though writer Morgan adds depth and dimension to several characters and pairings, including Maud’s sharp moral judgment of a heroic wealthy woman named Alice, powerfully played by Romola Garai (Atonement, Rory O’Shea Was Here), which leads to the picture’s most rational and poignant act of heroism; a rescue made possible by the mutual bond of understanding between Alice and Maud.

There are nods to martyrdom, collectivism and altruism—a funeral banner emblazoned with praise for sacrifice “for others”—yet there is also a profound recognition for the unique alienation that accompanies the full awareness and knowledge, commitment and fortitude of one who lives by ideals that come too soon for this life, or too late by another measure. With a reverent line about the serenity of being able to project the future of “those that shall follow you” in the march of the unconquered and persecuted toward progress for civilization, and disclaimed with a fact check of history, Suffragette is a moving depiction of a woman transformed from working stiff to the radical who thinks and acts upon her principles.

Movie Review: The Walk (IMAX 3D)

TheWalkPosterDirector Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Flight) perfectly applies his fascination with technology to storytelling in The Walk, which is one of the year’s best pictures.

On one layer, this is a light, whimsical movie about an acrobat taking his acrobatics seriously to prove an important point about human potential to the whole world. The visual, first-person narrative from the Statue of Liberty’s torch and other fanciful touches are part of the performance. Mr. Zemeckis, who also co-wrote The Walk, drives his idea of what one might call a performance artist’s creative need to act out over and over. Executed on the world’s tallest skyscrapers, a true story based on a high-wire walk by French acrobat Philippe Petit, it doesn’t get old and it doesn’t get in the way. As with any practiced, crafted and tuned live performance, the flourish enhances the daring act.

That the skyscrapers—and Mr. Zemeckis comes from a great American city of skyscrapers, Chicago—are the twin towers of the World Trade Center (1973-2001) make the events depicted in this groundbreaking movie more enticing.

Seen by this writer at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in IMAX 3D, The Walk begins as the tale of a boy who seeks to create his own “sacred space” in a circle on the sidewalks of Paris. Of course, this puts him at odds with police and his own parents, who neither support nor understand his strange pursuits. Philippe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) mimes, juggles and, eventually, walks on wire. It is his passion to command an audience’s attention to certain aspects of reality as he recasts them. Philippe performs magic. He rides a unicycle. When he sees a picture of the World Trade Center under construction in New York City, he makes up his mind—he calls seeing the photograph “providence”—about embarking upon his greatest adventure.

As Philippe plans his trespassing crime, he sees walking on a wire between the Twin Towers as a defining part of his own, personal journey. So he sets out to practice his skill at a circus, where he enlists the aid of a seasoned high-wire performer (Ben Kingsley), who becomes Philippe’s mentor. Here, too, he breaks away from tradition and his insistence on doing things his way leads to other complications. As Philippe loses support from blood relatives, he gains support from those related only by their shared passion for their own values, such as singer Annie (Charlotte Le Bon, The Hundred-Foot Journey) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony, The Tourist). “I want to know more,” Philippe says at one point in The Walk. His chosen friends and master help him learn to acquire new knowledge.

The camaraderie is infectious, as Philippe attracts an audience, makes mistakes, expresses fleeting moments of doubt, falls and learns how to relax into the high-wire act. In the process, he becomes the ultimate live performer, appreciating his own choices, audiences and themes and gauging how to assess the potential for distraction, danger and the risks of the fears of others. For example, one of his team members has a crippling fear of heights. Philippe, in dealing with his own fear of losing the lad, leads by example to provide the right measure of confidence in his own ability. With Mr. Kingsley’s circus ringmaster looking on while dragging on a cigarette in an elegant holder, Philippe studies cable thickness and load strength with the precision of an engineer. No detail, lesson or fact escapes his notice or accounting.

He is a cunning criminal; a foreigner plotting to intrude upon the World Trade Center for subversive purposes, and with a van full of foreign accomplices no less. No one who knows the history of the Twin Towers can ignore the stark similarities and differences in his crime and the acts of Islamic terrorist mass murder that would blast and ultimately take the skyscrapers down in 1993 and 2001. Philippe practices on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris before he comes to lower Manhattan for that exceptional act in August of 1974, and, in a sense, the closest he comes to having a religion is his steely conviction in himself and in the power to master his mind and body here on earth, strictly on his own terms and for his own sake.

Philippe Petit is the antidote to the religious terrorist. He targets the World Trade Center to express himself and glorify man’s greatest achievements, not to martyr himself and destroy man’s greatest achievements. He calls his unexpected act by its French word: the coup.

The attempted coup is, as recreated by Mr. Zemeckis with amazing clarity and realism, body-tingling, nerve-wracking and breathtaking. The practices take place to Alan Silvestri’s jazz score. The act itself happens in silence or with music that matches its sense of the sublime. “The outside world starts to disappear,” Philippe recalls of his day on top of the world. “I feel the wire supporting me with the towers supporting the wire” and, in an instant, at the birth of the rising steel skyscrapers soaring into the clouds, the Frenchman who juggled for money on the sidewalks of Paris enacts something both beautiful and defiant in perfect unity with nature and the manmade. The Walk is meant for this moment, and everyone, especially Gordon-Levitt, cast and the special effects crew led by Mr. Zemeckis, lets it linger in wonder and amazement for a spectacularly powerful climax in cinema.

The Walk is that soulful. Who better than an independent Frenchman standing on top of France’s gift to America to stir the spirit of free enterprise that built the greatest nation on earth? Petit, who, in reality, called for the World Trade Center to be rebuilt, reduces his accomplishment’s metrics to its essential meaning in the beginning of The Walk. He speaks of a choice between life and death. This is the unspoken, fundamental contest between the World Trade Center acts of 1974 and 2001. The Walk, in two parts playfulness and precision, depicts peace and serenity as the proper reward for honoring the manmade upon its creation. Philippe Petit put an acrobatic accent on two great symbols of American capitalism; Robert Zemeckis brings the performance and its exhaustive practices gloriously to the screen.

If it achieves nothing more than this, an exact recreation of the single most life-affirming moment in the World Trade Center’s brief history here on earth, The Walk, which does what America should have done and rebuilds the Twin Towers, is worth every second of its two tantalizing hours.

Related Articles and Posts

Movie Review: World Trade Center

TV Review: Rebuilding the World Trade Center

TV & DVD Review: Path to Paradise (the Story of the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing)

Civil War Stories

Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives

Photo by Matthew Brady, National Archives

Part of this year’s American Civil War exhibit, “Empire & Liberty: Civil War and the West”, at the Autry National Center of the American West includes an occasional academic affair and I recently attended such a panel discussion, titled “Invisible Injuries: Civil War Veterans and the Legacies of Violence.” The event was informative and sobering.

Two scholars, Dora Costa, a UCLA professor of economics and author of Heroes and Cowards: The Social Face of War and Roxane Cohen, a University of California, Irvine psychology and social behavior professor, and moderator William Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, examined several aspects of recent studies about Civil War soldiers, including certain demographic and relational breakdowns, injuries and deaths.

They addressed their research into war-related trauma among Civil War veterans and their communities and the long-term psychological consequences of the war. Among their findings, which readers can explore here, are that 19 percent of enlisted soldiers in the study were between the ages of nine and 17 years old. I had known from my education and studies with John David Lewis that those who fought in the war were especially young. I had not known, however, that 95 percent of those enlisted were volunteers, more than any other war since the American Revolution. The presentation gave me a sense of life the United States at the time of the Civil War while demonstrating that the long-term effects of war on communities, states, countries and the culture are serious, devastating and transformative, if realized decades later.

Their resarch shows that unit cohesion, such as how many in the company were related by blood, similar age, community, ethnicity, etc. and/or how closely soldiers related to one another as friends and comrades, enhanced a soldier’s ability to heal and survive. Another positive impact apparently came from strong social network support, such as moral support through picnics and parades, which had measurable improvement on mens’ ability to survive and sustain injury after the war. Even celebrations around Christmastime and Thanksgiving correlate to mens’ higher survival rates and longer lives. Scholars also explained that companies were constructed differently; the Union companies were kept largely intact, while the Confederacy constantly replenished its company troops on the idea that new recruits would motivate the men to learn to fight.

Additionally, Costa attributes the rise of trench warfare to the huge proliferation following the Napoleonic Wars of small arms. When I asked her about survivability rates among abolitionists that enlisted—survivability rates were highest among deserters and free black men in the Union Army who were not assigned to fight in battle as often—Costa said they died in greater numbers because abolitionists were more motivated to fight to win and end the war to abolish slavery, which the Civil War did, in fact, accomplish. This was a fascinating program, part of the Autry’s “Empire & Liberty: Civil War and the West”, which I plan to review in a future post.