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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Film 'Apollo 13' Makes U.S. Feel Good Again

The hit movie of the season in the United States is "Apollo 13," the story of the 1970 moon mission that failed. It cost just over $51 million to make, but earned back twice that in its first four weeks dominating the summer box office.


In a single month from July 7 to Aug. 5, three U.S. space shuttle missions were scheduled for launch from Cape Canaveral. This unprecedented burst of activity was timed to accompany the opening of the best publicity vehicle for NASA in decades.


The film was given unprecedented cooperation from the space agency. The actors were allowed to use NASA's own weightlessness-training aircraft, known as the "Vomit Comet" for its effects on digestion, to film the zero-gravity sequences. NASA provided 600 runs aboard the windowless KC-135 which soars and dives in great swoops in the sky, offering 23 seconds of weightlessness on each arc.


NASA also rushed to finish a new Mission Control Center on time, so that the old one could become the centerpiece of its new museum. Visitors now stand at the very place where ground controllers first heard the words, "Er, Houston, we have a problem." And just across the vast room is the very blackboard at which Mission Controller Gene Kranzl snapped: "We've never lost an American in space, and we sure as hell aren't gonna lose one on my watch."


And if Hollywood can be rallied to the cause, NASA sure isn't gonna lose its space program to budget cuts. Already running on less than half of the budget of the glory days, NASA is fighting for its institutional life. The film explains how to fight most effectively -- by mobilizing public support.


As Apollo 13 takes off, the wives and families realize to their dismay that the TV networks aren't screening it. Prime time is not interested. The viewers are bored with just another routine flight to the moon. But then an oxygen tank bursts, the lives of three astronauts are in dire peril and America tunes back in for the deathwatch.


So now, NASA and Hollywood jointly present "Deathwatch: The Movie." And America is flocking to the box office to see history made real as only Hollywood can.


There is something about the current American mood which makes the 25-year-old success of the Apollo missions and the Apollo rescue politically important. The first full screening of "Apollo 13" took place at the White House at the president's request. Then, in a long speech on "Responsible Citizenship and the American Community," Clinton took the film as his text. It was an example of American ability to overcome mortal challenge. It was proof that technology could be a friend, not a threat. It was a memory of a time when "middle-class values" were not in question. And in a direct quotation from the movie, Clinton found inspiration for America's future in its crucial phrase, "Failure is not an option."


It is unusual for a movie to enter the political discourse in this way. But the politicians cannot stay away from this emblem of an America that did things right. Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich finds the film "glorious -- an inspiration."


"It's an amazingly wonderful movie, and it's a movie about Americanism and about the notion of a team that faces a huge crisis and people work all day, every day, and they finally find a way to solve it by the narrowest of margins, and of very calm courage and of a kind of heroism," Gingrich gushed the other day.