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Balloon Boy – an appreciation

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Now that the balloon boy is yesterday’s news, the saga having apparently run its course and the wheels of justice about to slowly grind the Heenes into dust, it may be time to step back and appreciate what they wrought: an experience so exhilarating that Hollywood must be shaking its collective head and marvelling at the power of such a simple concept. With a few swaths of mylar, a good yarn, and the ever-ready cable-TV cameras, Richard Heene managed to pull off the best action movie of the summer … and in October even!

I’m sure our newsroom was like many places across America during the two hour extravaganza. Lots of people crammed around TV sets while others hovered over computer screens as the incredible story unfolded, everyone transfixed by the sight of that homemade flying saucer with the six-year-old boy on board flying higher and higher into the skies over Colorado. The visuals were stunning. A perfectly shaped silver mylar spaceship hurtling through the clouds in a light blue sky, going faster and faster, and reaching heights of six and seven thousand feet above ground. The remarkable camerawork allowed us all a front-row seat. We weren’t just following a gray dot high above us. We were given a tight shot of the runaway balloon that made it seem tantalizingly close. So compelling was the sight that no words were needed to heighten the effect. It was sheer spectacle – a fantastical sight so riveting one couldn’t look away.

And the premise was a model of dramatic purity – a child in distress, with no clear way for anyone to help him. Someone in our newsroom even said this is the kind of situation that calls for a real-life superhero to fly up there, corrall the gas balloon and rescue the trapped kid. Without the services of Superman, Spiderman, or the Incredibles, this cliffhanger was all the more suspenseful. Would the balloon rise to such heights that it could burst and send the boy tumbling to earth like a modern day Icarus? Or might it crash into some mountains and kill its occupant that way? If it simply ran out of fuel, would it make for a hard landing or a soft one? Could we somehow get aircraft close enough to it to rope it into a net and save the boy mid-air? The possibilities seemed endless, and each one more dramatic than the next.

Although most of the time the situation remained static – a balloon flying farther and farther away – there was a narrative arc of sorts to the proceedings, provided by CNN’s coverage. This arc allowed for a roller-coaster of shifting emotions. First off, the chilling word that a boy had stowed away inside a balloon that was now thousands of feet above the ground and picking up speed. Then came the speculation that perhaps the boy was NOT in the balloon – that he had fallen out of an attached basket sometime earlier in the flight OR had never actually made it inside the balloon at all. The consensus seemed to be moving in the direction of the latter, to the relief of millions, when all of a sudden came the word that there definitely had been a basket attached to the balloon, a basket that was clearly no longer attached. Anxiety levels now skyrocketed. It now sounded like the boy had indeed fallen with the basket. CNN even found a still photo that appeared to show something falling from the balloon proper. This was followed by the nerve-wracking collapse of one end of the still-speeding balloon, the deflated part flapping like a useless appendage. And then finally, the downy soft landing and the rush to see whether anyone was inside. Relief jostled with dread as it became clear no one was inside the balloon. The dread was the boy had already fallen out. Joy reigned supreme quickly thereafter when the boy was found safe and sound at his home. (That joy soon gave way to acrimony, of course, and, as it turned out, rightly so.)

Lots of people are now furious that Richard Heene duped us all into believing his hoax, and on one level, I agree it’s pretty insulting. But the vitriol seems out of proportion. After all, we pay Hollywood big money to dupe us all the time – and this balloon hoax didn’t cost us a thing. (Okay, the price of the rescue operation wasn’t cheap, I grant you.) Movies are all about the suspension of disbelief and for a couple hours last week we suspended our disbelief long enough to experience a rush of emotions that were richer and more gratifying than any conjured up by summer blockbusters like the Terminator, Wolverine, G I Joe, or the Transformers. Heene apparently concocted this balloon hoax as a way for him to land another reality TV series but he may have been setting his sights too low. Once he sorts out his legal troubles, he just might have a future in Hollywood.

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