I don’t watch a lot of movies. Some of this is a taste thing, and some of it is a quality thing, but mostly I just don’t find myself excited about more than a couple of movies a year. Watching the Oscars last night, though, did get me to thinking about the movies that have meant a lot to me, and at the top of that list is Apollo 13.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that part of the reason I am a writer and a programmer is from watching that movie. I was 10 when the movie first premiered, and I was lucky enough to see it in the theater (though I had to wait a day since they were sold out the first time we tried to go see it). What’s great about that movie is that it is a true story of “working the problem.” Both the mission control team and the astronauts in the capsule work the problems one at a time toward the ultimate goal of landing them safely back on Earth.
One of my favorite little moments (and there are many) is when one of the NASA engineers grabs a bunch of guys and dumps a whole pile of materials out onto a table in front of them. He then holds up a filter from the command module and a filter from the lunar module uses and says basically “we need to fit a round peg into a square hole using nothing but this junk.” In a feat of MacGuyver like brilliance the ground team designs a solution, then feeds it to the guys in space and they actually get it to work.
This last describes a lot of the practical challenges I deal with every day as a software designer. When you’re programming under the gun, you often have to figure out how to make existing structures work for you, rather than designing a perfect solution from scratch. It’s not always an ideal fix, but it is often the solution that actually works. My most frustrating moments are ones where people put the theoretical perfect solution ahead of the solution that’s working correctly now.
Maybe this doesn’t sound fun to you, but seeing a bunch of people work through a problem appealed to me. Apollo 13 is also a tight piece of drama. One crisis is averted only to have another crop up in its place. One of the early critics of the film criticized that it had a “Hollywood” ending when everyone made it back safely (even though this is what actually happened), but to get home there were a lot of obstacles to overcome. And the movie is legitimately funny in a lot of moments, when the astronauts tear off their medical monitors, or when Lovell’s mother doesn’t recognize Buzz Aldrin.
Not long after seeing this movie I wrote my own little short story about a disaster in space, and the team on the ground trying to solve it. Though the story line has evolved and changed over the years, this became an early basis for some of the ideas that later led to my first novel. While “Trapped – A Space Adventure” will never see print, the fruits of that early labor one day may.
It can be hard to summarize something that means so much to you (there’s so much more I want to say about the direction of our current space program, but that will have to wait for another day). Bottom line is that while movies generally do not move me, this one did and still does. If you’ve never seen it (where have you been the last 17 years?), you should check it out.
What pieces of creativity (movies, books, music) have influenced the career path you’ve chosen (or have they)?