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"Moon' offers new Apollo 13 angle

Faced with telling the story of Apollo 13's near-disaster just a few years after Ron Howard's big-budget film splashed the nail-biting drama all over the silver screen, producers of HBO's TV miniseries From the Earth to the Moon hit on an idea.

Why not center the story on media coverage of the calamity _ in which equipment failure forced the astronauts to turn back without touching down on the moon _ and see how reporters were pulled toward a tabloid-style focus on the pilots' families that has grown out of control in the '90s?

There's just one problem. The media in 1970 were probably nowhere near the kind of pack journalism, no-holds-barred attitude that colors much news coverage today.

"This may have been a bit early for that kind of tabloid mentality," said Dave Wagner, a news anchor at WTSP-Ch. 10 who makes several brief appearances in Moon's Apollo 13 episode tonight. He plays a wavy-haired, thick-sideburned news anchor in New York.

"It was a simpler time back then," Wagner said. "TV news _ and people's lives _ was much less complicated than it is now."

Even executive producer Tom Hanks, who oversaw all of Moon's $68-million, 12-episode look at the space program, admits that the episode (the last of two one-hour shows airing tonight, beginning at 8 on HBO) is the installment least based in actual fact _ featuring several characters and situations that were invented or embellished for effect.

"Literally, the nation was uninterested in (Apollo 13) until it became a life-or-death situation, then you vipers (journalists) came a-runnin'," said Hanks, laughing, while fielding questions last year in Orlando.

"I was always asking the screenwriters, "Can we have them (journalists) ask really stupid questions?' " said the actor, who played commander Jim Lovell in Howard's movie. "But we checked the transcripts and they were actually asking pretty good questions. So my hopes were dashed right there."

In fact, Moon's fictional journalists do ask stupid questions _ an early scene shows some reporters wondering whether the astronauts had "little black suicide pills" in case a mission goes wrong.

But the central tension stems from a struggle between old-time journalist Emmett Seaborn (played by Lois and Clark veteran actor Lane Smith) and an ambitious young reporter, Bret Hutchins (Jerry Maguire's Jay Mohr), who uses ambush techniques to get around NASA's efforts to keep astronauts families out of the limelight until the crisis ends.

Playing a homey amalgam that seems equal parts CBS anchor Dan Rather and ABC-TV analyst Jules Bergman, Smith draws sympathy as the older, wiser journalist willing to keep things ethical _ undermined by a scheming younger face who will do anything to get ahead.

"My character has a certain dignity and respect for privacy," said Smith. "Our episode really shows the frenzy that was going on . . . these issues are very much alive in our day."

But tonight's episode fails to ask whether Seaborn is a little too willing to accept what the government tells him about the astronaut's lives. In fact, Moon's episode on the first manned moon landing shows a rivalry between Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin that was never revealed until years later.

Isn't that part of the story, too?

"There's a fine line between being a lap dog and an attack dog," agreed Wagner, an Emmy-winning veteran of TV news. "But you look at the other extreme _ young reporters who . . . will do anything to get the story _ and you wonder what that does to the public trust."

With another bit part coming in Adam Sandler's The Waterboy and an audition looming for a Dan Aykroyd movie, the anchor and investigative reporter may have found a fun, attention-getting hobby.

Still, he's not about to leave his day job any time soon.

"I'm just thankful folks here allow me to do long-form stories about important issues," Wagner said. "News audiences these days are smarter than people give them credit for. If you give them something direct and truthful that has an impact in their lives, they'll respond."