Space is the Race: Representations of the 1960s Space Race in Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures

Ideological context plays a significant role in the representation of events in media narratives, not least in historical retellings. The space race of the 1950s and 1960s between the USA and the USSR has, in whole or in part, been the subject of many media texts, notably in American cinema.

apollo-13-546a880ac564dTheir institutional purposes and ideological contexts of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995) and Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures (2016), to focus on two examples, could not be more different. Howard’s film is a mid-1990s summer blockbuster, an exciting retelling of dramatically unusual circumstances. Melfi’s Hidden Figures, on the other hand, uses the beginnings of the space race as a backdrop for an exploration of institutional sexism and racism.

cRcUds1h_400x400Hidden Figures, while the more recent of the films, takes as its setting one of the earliest phases of the space race. The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik in October 1957, some four years prior to the main setting of the film. The narrative focusses on the work done at the Langley Research Center to put an American astronaut into space ahead of the Russians. When Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space in April 1961, the goalposts shift and the emphasis moves towards ensuring that American astronaut John Glenn make multiple successful orbits of the Earth during his February 1962 flight.

The sting of being second into space, with and without a pilot in the capsule, urged President John F Kennedy to famously pronounce that the United States aim to put an astronaut on the moon by decade’s end. Implicit in his speech was the intention that they do so ahead of the USSR. Public fervour in the aftermath of his assassination ensured that the deadline was met, the USA finally achieving a significant astronautical milestone ahead of its key sociopolitical competitor in July 1969.

This, then, is where we find ourselves in the opening phase of Apollo 13, a film whose narrative explores the immediate aftermath of the space race.

From this historical context arises a question: what led the American film industry to tell these particular stories in 1995 and 2016? Pragmatically, a driving factor behind the timing of Apollo 13 was the publication in the previous year of its source text, Lost Moon. Nevertheless, books come and go without being adapted into big-budget films, so an impetus must have existed to retell the story with relative rapidity.

The book on which Hidden Figures is based was published mere months before the film, suggesting a pre-publication optioning of the property. This is telling, as it implies a belief that something of the substance and/or themes of the historical narrative were relevant to a 2016 audience.

A 1995 audience would have had little interest in the ideological battlegrounds of the Cold War. Tensions had eased between the two superpowers of the latter half of the 20th century. Other films of the time support this cooling of interest: GoldenEye (also 1995), a revival of the James Bond series, is explicit in its dismissal of the Cold War as significant.

The choice of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission as a subject is therefore fitting, exploring NASA’s heyday beyond the direct influence of the space race.

America’s waning interest in the space programme in general, coupled with its increasing interest in the impact of technology on daily life, is another cultural marker reflected in Apollo 13. With little in the way of immediate excitement surrounding a NASA program that had been continuing apace for some years, the general public had shown little interest in individual missions since 1986. That year had seen the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and the public interest generated by the tragedy is reflective of a similar spike in attention brought by the systems failure on Apollo 13.

1995 was a significant year in terms of the influx of technology into everyday life. Microsoft that year released Windows 95, a desktop operating system featuring a far more user-friendly interface than the majority of its predecessors. The internet became fully commercialised in the USA in that year: its impact on culture and commerce had begun an exponential increase that has since overtaken many facets of daily life.

Into this context, a media narrative exploring the failings of technology and humankind’s ability to meet those failings with success was timely.

The impact of cultural context on the choice of setting is less obvious in Hidden Figures if one thinks in terms of the space program. There is, however, a broader cultural influence at play, and this is apparent in the way the mechanics of the space program are de-emphasised in this film. It is instead about the place of women and minorities in the workforce, an issue at the forefront of many Americans’ minds in 2016.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement had begun in 2013, sparked by the acquittal of the killer of African-American teen Trayvon Martin. The #MeToo movement, still a year away, was a response to endemic workplace sexual harassment and assault of women already being publicised in 2016. Barack Obama, the USA’s first non-white president, was coming to the end of his second consecutive term, and a plausible female successor, Hillary Clinton, was on the campaign trail.

Closer to home for a Hollywood film, 2016 was the second consecutive year in which no non-white actors received Academy Award nominations – this despite the release, to critical and popular acclaim, of such films as Creed and Straight Outta Compton. Into this milieu, the notion of turning an as-yet-unpublished book about the struggle of three black women in a predominantly white male workforce in the early 1960s and releasing it in time for Oscar contention the following year must have been a no-brainer.

Zeus_Carver_-_Profile.pngA focus on ethnic minorities is an element notably absent from Apollo 13, where a viewer is hard-pressed to find a non-white face anywhere before the film’s closing minutes. This is not surprising when one considers representations of colour in 1990s Hollywood blockbuster fare. Of the high-budget releases in 1995, only Die Hard with a Vengeance features a prominent minority role in Samuel L Jackson’s Zeus Carver, and even there his very blackness is at the heart of the character.

Institutional factors play a no-less-important part in the shaping of a media narrative. Lost Moon tells the true story of a disaster in outer space. What more appropriate genre to opt for in translating it to the screen than the disaster movie?

With this consideration in mind, its journey from book to summer blockbuster is inevitable. Much of the action takes place either in space or at NASA Mission Control in 1970; neither of these is inexpensive to recreate. A sweeping, epic scope to counterbalance the intimate core story of three men in a confined capsule struggling to stay alive likewise demands a sizeable budget.

Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, and Kevin Bacon as they appear in APOLLO 13, 1995.To this would have been attached A-list stars and an A-list director. Tom Hanks had in recent years transformed from the likeable star of small-scale (predominantly romantic) comedies to an actor of considerable reputation. He had recently won two consecutive Best Actor Oscars – a feat not achieved since 1939 – for his transformative portrayal in Philadelphia and the heartwarming title character of successful crowd-pleaser Forrest Gump. To say he was box office gold in 1995 is a phenomenal understatement.

Supporting Hanks were Gary Sinise, his Forrest Gump co-star, familiar stalwarts Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton, and rising character actor Ed Harris. Audience expectations of these players would have been significant, shaping the nature of their engagement with cold calculation.

Director Ron Howard was riding on the success of a string of hits, including The Paper, Far and Away and Backdraft. He was, like Hanks, a reliable choice for a summer hit. Audiences familiar with his more recent work would have expected a handsome, polished production with an engaging, well-told story.

Consequently, Apollo 13’s large-scale summer release was entirely appropriate to Universal Pictures’ aims.

Despite the cultural boiler Hidden Figures emerged from, its story of three African-American women struggling to achieve career success in a segregated, misogynist America was unlikely to find success as a feel-good summer hit in an era of endless Star Wars and Marvel superhero sequels.

Adding to the commercial uncertainty of the project was its director, Theodore Melfi. A moderately successful producer of very small-scale projects, he had only directed one previous film, the low-budget St. Vincent. A co-writer and co-producer of Hidden Figures, this project was clearly a labour of love for Melfi.

"Hidden Figures" New York Special ScreeningThe cast is a curious mixture of familiar and unfamiliar faces. Stars Taraji P Henson and Janelle Monáe were established but not famous. Their co-star Octavia Spencer was a more familiar face, best known for the 2011 film The Help, another period drama with a focus on segregation for which she had won several Best Supporting Actress awards. It is unlikely Hidden Figures would have gone ahead without Spencer at least being sounded out to play one of the three leads.

Rounding out the cast are several better-known caucasian faces, there presumably to provide a measure of box office security. Kevin Costner plays Space Task Group director Al Harrison, with support from Kirsten Dunst and, in a role exhibiting shades of his Big Bang Theory character Sheldon Cooper, TV star Jim Parsons.

The film is a Fox 2000 picture, an arm of the studio designed for lower-budgeted films of a more arthouse bent, and its budget was an appropriately low $25 million. The film’s December release suggests a timing designed to coincide with being fresh in the minds of AMPAS members for Oscar consideration. Returning to the cultural context of the ‘white Oscars’, this push towards prestige is a logical one.

Hidden Figures is, therefore, a film able to take a risk in presenting its ideologies to an audience.

Allowing for the cultural and institutional contexts affecting Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures, the ideological contexts constructed by their producers – and, hence, the differing portrayals they give of the 1960s American space program – become inevitable.

Apollo 13 tells a universal story (no pun intended) of heroism and the human spirit in the face of adversity. Its interest in the space program is significant as a marker of the man vs technology discourse at its heart. With technological complexity comes the potential for minuscule errors to have catastrophic consequences, but human ingenuity can and will see us through.

The positioning of this ideology at the immediate aftermath of an external conflict of wills internalises the ideological focus: the question is no longer whether we can be better than some ill-defined other, but whether we can outdo ourselves.

The ideological context Hidden Figures is utterly specific, its period setting asking the question: ‘Have we actually improved?’ The film’s exploration of contemporary concerns speaks with immediacy to its audience. Racial conflict and gender inequality continue to be significant social problems, and their representation in Hidden Figures is plainly coded to align with issues currently dividing American society.

Nowhere is this more evident that in producer Pharrell Williams’s non-diegetic songs Runnin’ and Able, both performed in an anachronistic style, reminding the film’s audience that its ideological context remains current. That the lyrics to Able include the line ‘Yes we can’, Barack Obama’s famous 2008 election slogan, makes the link inescapable.

The function of the 1960s space race in cinema is incredibly varied, as these two examples demonstrate. Diverse ideologies can be represented through the lens of this specific outlet of human endeavour. The genuine ideological conflict at this historical period’s core has been largely overlooked in these films, but media narratives are more effective when they reflect the time of their production.

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