Monday, April 25, 2011

Following Leader

In Apollo 13 and Toy Story, Hanks characters offer lessons in leadership modeled on strong teamwork

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

In Apollo 13 (1995) Tom Hanks again teamed up with director Ron Howard, who helmed Splash eleven years earlier. More than any other film in the Hanks canon, it represents his most full-throated expression of affection for a government institution: the large bureaucratic federal agency known as The National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). Hanks’s childhood passion for the U.S. space program has been well documented; what’s worth emphasizing here is that this formative hobby took root at the very moment in American history where collective confidence in the federal government was at an all-time high, and one in which vast public projects – the interstate highway system and the early Internet, to name two other examples that come to mind – were undertaken in a can-do spirit. Though the film is a chronicle of a real-life near- disaster, there is never a sense that this is the fault of individual government workers or the agency generally. Indeed, we learn at the end of the movie that the cause of the mysterious spacecraft malfunction that endangers the life of the three astronauts on board was caused by equipment malfunction – which is to say the private sector to which such tasks were subcontracted were the ones who screwed up. Apollo 13 is an unabashed story of heroism of the part thoroughgoing organization men.
At the center of this heroism is Hanks’s character, astronaut Jim Lovell, who led the mission. But for all the excruciating planning that we see goes into planning moon exploration, we also see how much is left to chance. Indeed, Lovell only leads the mission because the team slated to go is unexpectedly scratched, and he subsequently makes the reluctant decision to scratch of his own team (played by Gary Sinise) because it’s believed he’s coming down with measles. Sinise’s character is replaced by another played by Kevin Bacon, who, it is clear, is not as well prepared. So when disaster strikes on the very cusp of success, the third member of the trio (Bill Paxton) cannot repress his suspicion that Bacon precipitated the crew’s problems. But in a crucial scene in the movie, Lovell simply shuts this carping down. But by power of his disciplined leadership, the three men – especially the increasingly ill Paxton – maintain their emotional equilibrium under extremely arduous conditions. Meanwhile, the crew on the ground, including Sinise, strains their own internal resources to bring these men back safely.  In an ironic but real way, Apollo 13 is a story of systemic success.
Hanks reaffirmed his commitment to his vision of teamwork with his participation in the now-classic Pixar Studios animated trilogy Toy Story, the first installment of which was also released in 1995 (the other two installments followed in 1999 and 2010). He is the voice of Woody, the TV tie-in cowboy figure and beloved companion of Andy, a suburban child unaware that the toys that populate his room have a life of their own when people aren’t watching. Like a lot of communities, this one is populated by diverse collection of individuals (loosely defined, in that many are reproductions of one kind or another, like the Mr. Potato Head voiced by Don Rickles), who did not necessarily arrive there by active choice, and who must – in any number of meanings of the term – find their place.
Andy’s toys are fortunate in this regard in that they are unofficially led by Andy, who governs this motley crew with a notably graceful hand: he’s smart, funny, and genuinely appreciative of the specific skill sets (like the plastic soldiers who perform routine reconnaissance missions to protect their secret state) particular toys contribute to the community.  His Achilles heel is his vanity, which gets wounded by the arrival of a rival for Andy’s affection: the outer space action figure Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen). Buzz, who is genial and generous, but who has an elevated view of himself, irritates Woody, who ultimately succeeds in puncturing his illusions by showing him an television advertisement for other versions of himself. “You. Are. A. Toy!” he shouts at Buzz. “A child’s plaything!” But Woody pays for this transgression in forfeiting the goodwill of his fellow toys, which directly leads to him falling into the clutches of the evil Sid, the child next door who brutally rips apart and reconstructs toys in the service of his own imagination (I suspect there may be good doctoral dissertation there). Only when Woody and Buzz achieve some sense of clarity of themselves – and, most crucially, only when they demonstrate a willingness to collaborate – can they and the other toys overcome the series of serial crises that include covetous toy collectors, a dastardly toy cabal at a child-care center and near-incineration, not to mention the tragic inevitability of Andy growing up and leaving them behind. In Toy Story III, Woody, who still holds a place of honor in Andy’s heart, is thus slated go to college with him. But the moving conclusion of the saga suggests that a meaningful life is best found with one’s colleagues in the service of the next generation.