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The typical adventure movie is a big, gaudy lie. It says life is a battle of one man, armed with only wit and grit, against a hostile universe. This romantic, existential notion does a disservice to the way most people live and work. We aren't solo flyers or secret agents. We are a squadron of team players dependent on our colleagues and increasingly on our machines to get us through our jobs. Often, because of those machines or those colleagues--or ourselves--we fail. And sometimes the bravest thing we can do is react quickly, boldly, gracefully to the failures and compromises we face every day. Getting along, getting by: it's a big subject the movies hardly ever touch.

The 17 Apollo moon missions, from 1967 to 1972, provided cubic tons of melodrama, from the explosion of the Apollo 1 test module that killed three astronauts to Neil Armstrong's buoyant lunar stroll from Apollo 11. The apogee of American know-how and teamwork, the program could, at the flick of a wrong switch, careen from triumph to tragedy. In this job, success meant you forged the ultimate frontier; failure meant you died with the whole world watching.

The Apollo 13 mission--launched at 13:13 military time on an April afternoon in 1970--carried the threat of death in its oxygen tanks. They exploded on April 13, imperiling both the mission and the lives of astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert. Commander Lovell, history's greatest traveler with almost 7 million miles on his Gemini and Apollo odometers, had dreamed of walking on the moon. Now he and his companions would be lucky to walk again on the earth. In an anxious four days, they would learn how to pilot a wounded, runaway craft; they would assemble an air purifier using homely artifacts found in any space module; and they would hope against hope that the guys back in Houston knew how to improvise against chaos.

Apollo 13, based on Lovell's memoir of the mission, chronicles those hairy days and salutes the men who worked to keep a disappointment from becoming a catastrophe. Ron Howard's film pays tribute to the signal and endangered American virtues of individual ingenuity and team spirit. "It gives credit where a great amount of credit has been forgotten," says Tom Hanks, the exemplary Hollywood star and former astro-nut teen who realized a dream of his own by playing Lovell. "Launching men into space is a fantastic undertaking, which very few people today seem to appreciate. It's ironic that we made a movie about a mission that was a 'failure,' because it's probably the best celebration of what NASA did."

A throwback to classic Hollywood pictures about men in groups--notably Howard Hawks' gruff flyboy panegyrics Dawn Patrol, Only Angels Have Wings and Air Force--the new film is also a splendid display of old-fashioned realistic special effects, which convince viewers not that they are in a cartoon but that they are inside a real rocket with real people who really might die. The result is that rare Hollywood achievement, an adventure of the intelligent spirit. From lift-off to splashdown, Apollo 13 gives one hell of a ride.

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