From Socialist Worker, No.1463, 7 October 1963, p.11.
Copyright © Estate of Paul Foot. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate. Paul Foot Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2005.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
I WENT to see Apollo 13. The confession over, I now pretend that I did so not for the real reason – a fascination with thrillers – but to draw serious political conclusions.
Chief among these is the extraordinary fact that the top American movie blockbuster of the moment, complete with the necessary Tom Hanks, is about an unmitigated disaster – a mission to the moon which never made it.
There have been some excellent American disaster movies. The Towering Inferno, complete with the necessary Paul Newman, was about a new tower block in Los Angeles, taller than anything else, which caught fire while a cross section of the city’s great and good were junketing on the top floor.
There was an identifiable baddie, a rogue building contractor who had cut corners with the wiring.
Then there was The China Syndrome, another very exciting film – complete with the necessary Jane Fonda – about the near meltdown of a nuclear power station.
There were baddies here too. Contractors had cut corners on the pipework in the station, and the pipes had started to crack and collapse.
Neither film is a call to overthrow the capitalist system, of course, but both gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure ana a tot to think about.
The mission of Apollo 13 to the Moon in the spring of 1970 was rushed forward to take some of the intense political pressure off the Nixon administration, in desperate trouble with its war in Vietnam and Cambodia.
A futile gesture was urgently required to remind Americans of the greatness of their country. The landing of Neil Armstrong on the Moon the previous year had been greeted with wonder across the world.
Apollo 13 was a desperate attempt to repeat the glory. No one showed much interest in the mission, however, until it went wrong.
The idea that three brave white Americans might die in space gripped the public imagination. In the true story there were, moreover, plenty of identifiable baddies.
First there were the political baddies (Nixon and Co) who ordered the mission to go ahead before everything was ready.
Then there were the usual bungling contractors. Someone had cut corners with the wiring to the oxygen tanks – a bungle which very nearly blew the entire spaceship to pieces.
If the excitement of the battle between life and death had been blended, as it was in the other two films, with the revelation of greed and political opportunism, this film could have been another great.
Instead, quite incredibly, all the questions which immediately come to mind as the film unfolds are carefully ignored. The only mention of the crook Nixon is a flattering one. The only mention of the political background is the need to “beat the Russians”.
As a result the film is a tremendous flop, a pathetic cliche about decent white American males being brave and brilliant and tense, while their adoring and anxious women and children weep for them at home.
It is as though new right wing America, rather like new right wing Labour, has so lost confidence in the system it represents that any possible blemish in it has to be eradicated before it is exposed.
The proverbial rotten apple can no longer be plucked out, in case it exposes the whole rotten barrel. Even in disaster movies everything about white America has to be seen to be perfect.
That is still happening today.
Last updated on 12.2.2005