1995: Apollo 13
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert
The collective shrug we eventually gave to the idea of landing on another planet remains perhaps the greatest crime ever perpetrated against the human imagination. After three years that saw six different groups of astronauts set foot on the moon, that promised Mars and the solar system beyond, that made us giants, we became small again. We became indifferent to the majesty of space. The short-sightedness is staggering. The lost years are heart-breaking. And the lonely moon wanders through our sky, wondering when we’ll return.
So it might seem a bit ironic that I chose a film about not getting to the moon to put on this list. But perhaps the real power of Apollo 13, beyond the simple gripping drama of the effort both in space and on the ground to return the crew safely, is in the idea that the thing we became so jaded about, that we so took for granted, was an incredibly dangerous endeavor, undertaken by men who were absolute heroes. Here was sacrifice and bravery and ingenuity and sheer dogged determination not to give up. And we squandered it by abandoning the very thing those men strove to reach, even if they never did. They risked their lives, and we cared only until those lives were no longer in danger, until it was no longer news. Then it was back to staring at the ground.
And it wasn’t just the astronauts in space who were the heroes. The scientists and technicians and fellow astronauts who fought weariness and helplessness to work the problem, to find a way home, were every bit as heroic. What really set the Apollo missions apart was that they were distinctly communal achievements. Thousands of people played a part, scattered across the country, and the world. Millions watched them unfold. The entire space program was undoubtedly the most visible feat of exploration ever. Columbus didn’t have an audience. Lindbergh didn’t have a live feed. But we heard those distant voices from millions of miles away. We knew humanity was out there somewhere. And they knew home was listening. The vast gulf of space made us closer than ever before.
The final lines of the film are Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell musing, “I look up at the moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?” It’s as much an indictment as it is a question. He might as well be saying, “Why haven’t we gone back? And why don’t you care that we haven’t? How can you watch what we went through and say six times was enough?” Because it’s not. Half a dozen times on heaven’s doorstep is a meager journey. The pathfinders deserve to see a long road stretched out before them, not a few tiny steps beyond the giant leap they took.