SILVER SCREEN FEDS: 'Apollo 13,' 'The Simpsons Movie'

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Russ Cargill oh-so-helpfully nudges President Schwarzenegger to pick the right plan. (from The Simpsons Movie, 20th Century Fox)

Today on Silver Screen Feds, Andy Medici takes a look at the best team of federal employees ever to grace the big screen: Mission control from “Apollo 13.” And keep reading for Stephen Losey’s take on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Russ Cargill, from “The Simpsons Movie” — the first character we’ve profiled who descends into outright super-villainy.

BEST FEDS: Mission Control, NASA, “Apollo 13″ (Andy Medici)

Most of the time, being a good federal employee requires working well as a team. Being able to finish projects on tight deadlines while dealing with multiple other priorities is a staple of any fed’s tenure in government.

And in this case, there may be no better federal team in cinema than NASA’s mission control from “Apollo 13.” The 1995 film — directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and lots of other people everyone recognizes — follows the journey of the Apollo 13 astronauts as they attempt to reach Earth safely after a disaster onboard the ship renders it nearly useless.

Mission control (from Apollo 13, Universal Pictures)

But just as importantly, it catalogues the actions of the mission control crew back on Earth, which not only innovates on the fly, but shows amazing expertise and passion in their efforts. Led by Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) the feds on the ground have to develop a new way to restart the command module on a ludicrously small amount of power. At one point, the ground crew need to figure out a way to literally fit a square peg into a round hole to help the lunar lander’s carbon dioxide filters function.

Kranz famously tells his team that “failure is not an option,” and they rise to the occasion.

Now obviously I don’t have to tell you how it ends (happily), but the mission control team at NASA helped to pull off an amazing rescue under tremendous odds. And if that is not what being a federal employee is all about, then I don’t know what is.

WORST FEDS: Russ Cargill, EPA, “The Simpsons Movie” (Stephen Losey)

When it comes to Hollywood, the EPA is the Rodney Dangerfield of the federal government: It don’t get no respect. Our first edition of Silver Screen Feds profiled the small-scale villainy of “Ghostbusters’” Walter Peck, who used his authority with the EPA to bully a small business into shutting down. But while Peck didn’t intend to cause the potentially world-ending consequences that resulted from his actions, today’s Worst Fed is well aware of what he’s trying to do.

In 2007’s “The Simpsons Movie,” the beloved Simpsons family and the town of Springfield is nearly destroyed by EPA chief Russ Cargill (maniacally voiced by Albert Brooks). After Homer renders Springfield completely toxic by illegally dumping a silo of pig excrement in a lake, Cargill seizes the opportunity to manipulate a dimwitted President Schwarzenegger into quarantining the town with a giant dome. Meanwhile, the Simpsons flee from an angry mob (as always) and seek refuge in Alaska, where they learn Cargill plans to destroy Springfield with a massive bomb and create a new Grand Canyon so the government can drum up more tourism revenue. The Simpsons return and, thanks to Homer’s third-act epiphany and newly-found motorcycle skills, thwart Cargill’s plot and save Springfield.

Let’s just set aside the fact that Cargill is plotting the mass murder of an entire town for the moment. Cargill’s decision to turn Springfield into a new Grand Canyon is a clear abuse his authority and illegally circumvents the eminent domain process. After all, when the government seizes private property, it’s supposed to pay the owner fair market value — not nuke him.

Cargill goes far beyond the purview of his office by bringing the federal government’s entire national security apparatus — including the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping operations — in on a nationwide dragnet to catch one family. He turns a small regulatory agency into a paramilitary organization.

And worst of all, he freely admits that he’s gone over the edge. At one point, a wary EPA underling tells Cargill, “Sir … I’m afraid you’ve gone mad with power.” To which Cargill replies, “Of course I have! Ever try going mad without power? It’s boring, no one listens to you.”

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2 Comments

  1. As I recall, most of the “employees” who are shown in the NASA control room were highly-paid contractors; not civil service employees of the government. Thus the conclusions documented are non-supportable by the known facts.

  2. As I recall, most of the “employees” who are shown in the NASA control room for Apollo-13 were highly-paid contractors; not civil service employees of the government. Thus the conclusions documented are non-supportable by the known facts.

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