scientist holding air filter parts in the film Apollo 13

Apollo 13 and the Nostalgia of American Competence

On the film’s 25th anniversary, Apollo 13 shows how much has changed in the way America responds to a crisis.

Ask anyone who’s watched it to name a scene from the 1995 film Apollo 13 and odds are they’ll recall the famous air filter sequence. A buildup of carbon dioxide is slowly suffocating the three astronauts played by Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon; and a team of NASA scientists manage to construct a makeshift air scrubbing system — fitting a square peg into a round hole — out of duct tape, plastic bags, and a gym sock. It’s a hugely satisfying moment wherein some of the world’s greatest scientific minds work cooperatively and efficiently together to solve a complicated problem.

A similarly gratifying, if less-revered, scene exists in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Dr. Haywood Floyd (William Sylvester) and a pair of affable scientists conduct a casual briefing over synthetic ham sandwiches en route to a lunar dig site. It’s a sensitive and highly-classified operation, and all three men conduct themselves with professionalism and composure. “The way we look at it it’s our job to do this thing the way you want it done and we’re only too happy to be able to oblige.” There’s no arrogance, no jockeying for position or praise, no simmering resentment about the nature of the mission or what kind of spin to disseminate to the press. Just a group of professionals with a job to do and a commitment to doing it right.

Both scenes instill a strong sense of confidence in the viewer, a feeling that smart, responsible people are in charge of a complex situation. Re-watching Apollo 13 for its 25th anniversary this week, I was struck by the intensity of my emotional reaction to the scenes of Flight Director Gene Kranz (played stern but fatherly by Ed Harris in that iconic white vest) and the highly-competent team at NASA working together towards a common goal. I realized that sensation of confidence and gratification was a feeling I haven’t had about American leaders or institutions in years. Here we are in 2020 and the scenario in Apollo 13 seems to be playing itself out all over again. We’re in the midst of a national crisis where lives hang in the balance, and the thing that will save us is a strong leader mobilizing a group of experts to solve a complex problem. Except this time around there is no Gene Kranz in a crisp white vest inciting us to “work the problem, people!,” no crack team of elite scientists marshaled to tackle the dilemma.

The comfort derived from watching Apollo 13 serves as a stark contrast to the American government’s response — or lack thereof — to the coronavirus pandemic. When the film originally premiered in 1995 it was simply another dewy-eyed entry into the canon of Boomer nostalgia, but 25 years later the nostalgia in Apollo 13 is for a time when there was confidence that representatives of the American government were capable of handling a crisis. Today, the scenes of Kranz and the gang doing their jobs and doing them well serve as a kind of “competence porn,” a reminder of what America used to be when American leaders and institutions could be counted on during challenging situations.

Of course it would be disingenuous to suggest that the history portrayed in Apollo 13 is a fully accurate or well-rounded depiction of American leadership in 1969. The film is propaganda, after all, and for many people at the time the American space program represented a decided lack of leadership. The Apollo program came on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, when many Black Americans felt the money and effort expended sending white astronauts to the Moon could be better utilized ending poverty here on Earth. But even opponents of the Apollo program agreed that it was made up of people who were capable of solving big problems, they merely disagreed about which problems their attention should be focused on. Today, as Black rights are again at the forefront of the national conversation, there is no confidence whatsoever that our leaders are equipped or even willing to solve problems, scientific or otherwise. Fifty years ago — heck, even four years ago — it at least felt like that was possible. Now it’s hard to imagine our government is capable of stepping away from its narcissistic posturing and deliberate cruelties to accomplish much of anything.

Contemporary film has been slow to address this contraction in competent American leadership. To date arguably the best critique of our current situation is the 2019 HBO miniseries Chernobyl. The series’ plot similarly concerns the response of a global power to a major national crisis, but instead of a crack team of administrators and scientists the situation is largely (mis)handled by bureaucrats who spend more time attempting to deflect blame than solve the problem at hand. Often the only responsible adults in the room are depicted as the chemists Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), and scenes where the pair barely manage to keep a bad situation from becoming catastrophically worse evoke similar feelings of satisfaction as in Apollo 13. A famous sequence where Legasov explains the events leading up to the meltdown using nothing more than a set of red and blue placards is surprisingly gratifying; after the repeated catastrophes and failures in leadership up to that point in the story it’s weirdly heartening to know that at least somebody understood what the hell was going on, even if they were powerless to affect it. Sadly, with Chernobyl the feelings of confidence and reassurance are tainted by the bitterness and familiar realization that, while the scientists in Apollo 13 were provided with the full support and resources at their government’s disposal, their Soviet counterparts were met with nothing but obstinacy and derision from their superiors, their recommendations largely ignored.

America seems to be approaching coronavirus with the same ethos as the bureaucrats depicted in Chernobyl: poor leadership has led to a far more serious disaster than should have ever been allowed, and now the focus isn’t so much on fixing the problem but mitigating the damage that has been and continues to be done. NASA has recently completed a prototype of a special ventilator specifically for treatment of COVID-19 patients. Given the government’s lack of action in every other arena, this contribution from NASA feels like a shrug, as if to admit that since nothing will be done to prevent new infections, they’ll do what they can to keep infected people alive. Meanwhile, the president strongly supports efforts to return to the Moon, a Potemkin village to distract from our status as a failed state.

Apollo 13 reminds us nostalgically of where we were, and Chernobyl confronts us with where we are. What remains now is for America to decide what it wants to become. In moments of anxiety over current events I’ve been queueing up old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. As with Apollo 13, I find immense satisfaction and comfort in the show’s vision of a utopian future. It’s soothing to watch a responsible and principled leader like Captain Picard marshal his dedicated crew into working together towards a common goal of peace and better understanding of the universe. In this moment of extreme crisis we currently find ourselves in, new leaders and cooperatives of talented, compassionate people are emerging out of the rubble of our failed systems. We can only hope that media like Apollo 13, Chernobyl, and Star Trek will serve both as warning and inspiration for where to go next.

Kristen Grote is a freelance film and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.