APOLLO 13 (1995)

  • Director: Ron Howard
  • Writers: William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert, based on Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
  • Starring: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, and Kathleen Quinlan
  • Accolades: 2 Oscars (Best Film Editing, Best Sound), 7 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor – Ed Harris, Best Supporting Actress – Kathleen Quinlan, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Apollo 13 is one of those eminently respectable docudramas that recreates actual historical events in meticulous detail, to the point that one wonders why we aren’t just watching a documentary. Which is not to say that documentaries tell the unfiltered truth, but more that if there are actual recordings of something I’d rather watch those than a movie that doesn’t bring some other perspective. Certainly this is more me complaining about the fact that this subgenre, especially in more recent years, seems to have been anointed the most prestigious of all subgenre, than me complaining about Apollo 13 specifically. As a movie, it has settled into the sweet spot somewhere between the more crowdpleasing end of Oscar-bait dramas and the more prestigious end of TNT afternoon movies for dads. Back when TNT occasionally ran movies and not just 70,000 NCIS reruns in a row or whatever so that my mother-in-law never has to change the channel.

As I’m hoping many of you already knew, Apollo 13 was supposed to be the third American mission to land on the moon (after Apollo 11 became the first and Neil Armstrong took “one giant leap for mankind”), but suffered an unexpected explosion on the way and never reached the Moon. NASA was able to work with the three astronauts to jury-rig a series of solutions that enabled the astronauts to get back to Earth in one piece, though they never made it to the Moon. In practice it is less a story than a canonization. I am fairly certain at least one class I had somewhere at some point made us watch this movie for purposes of learning about “problem solving.” Ed Harris delivers one of the movie’s famous lines: “Failure is not an option,” and I’m sure many dumb middle-management bosses have uttered that since.

The thing is, I have said before here about various movies that they’re impeccably well-made, but none of those movies have been made any impeccablier than Apollo 13. The period Mission Control was remade so meticulously that one consultant (who had worked for NASA at the time) said he would walk off set and be startled that he hadn’t actually been at NASA in Houston. Large sections of the movie features the three astronauts, Commander Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) floating weightlessly in their capsule. I’d always been convinced this was a particularly effective special effect. But I discovered while researching this movie that they didn’t actually fake the weightlessness. Director Ron Howard set up a reconstruction of the capsule inside the “vomit comet,” a plane that goes to the edge of space and then heads right back down, allowing the occupants to experience approximately twenty-five seconds of weightlessness at a time. So they rode the plane a total of 600 times to get the shots they needed. It is, frankly, insane.

As people interested in the space program go, I am near the top of the list, I’ll bet, but I doubt I hold a candle to Tom Hanks, who decided he wanted to make this movie, found out Ron Howard had the rights, and so went to Howard and insisted on starring in the movie. Hanks went on to produce (and partly write and direct) a 12-part HBO miniseries on the space program entitled From the Earth to the Moon, and has since co-written and produced an IMAX documentary about the Moon landings, narrated a planetarium show about the Moon, and served on the board of the Space Society. This seems to me to be a way better thing for a random middle-aged American white dude to be into than, say, World War II memorabilia.

Anyhow, the movie’s extreme fidelity to what actually happened (right down to the actual transcripts of what the various parties actually said over the radio) is likely a product of Hanks’ insistence. Yet the movie’s two most famous lines were either misquoted or made up, that one about “failure” and the perhaps even more famous, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” To some degree, it is that fidelity that drains a bit of the life out of the movie. Except for like half of one scene, nobody in space or at mission control ever seems much less than self-assured, never breaking out of that trademark, almost bored tone on the radio. At the end of the movie, Ed Harris wipes away a single, small, manly tear. For me, combined with the fact that I already know the history and know that the astronauts do make it back, it drains a lot of the life out of the drama.

Breaking up this loosened-tie stoicism are occasionally cutaways to Lovell’s wife, Marilyn (played by Kathleen Quinlan), and his kids. Quinlan received an Oscar nomination for her performance, which mostly resists what would be the easy path of descending into histrionics. That the movie can show the people waiting at home is perhaps one major advantage over a documentary, in theory, but it’s also never anything but completely predictable. It’s entirely a great cast, though none of them ever really have to do anything other than say their lines with conviction (and, I suppose, survive 600 rides on the vomit comet). Also on board is Gary Sinise, the crew member removed at the last minute who ends up helping figure out how to land the ship, Xander Berkeley, who plays a very vaguely sleazy NASA PR guy, and several members of the Howard family, most prominently Ron’s brother Clint, who plays one of the many guys with headsets populating Mission Control.

I think I have a basic issue buying into Apollo 13’s basic message of manly assuredness. It is possible that many will find its overwhelming institutional competence reassuring, and I will certainly grant them that. Maybe I am just too cynical. As movies about the space program go, I think I might prefer The Right Stuff, which also has Ed Harris in its cast, as John Glenn, no less, has a much wider scope and more room for human foibles, and also has a scene with a naked lady fan dancing for LBJ. The space program is awe inspiring, but it’s more awe inspiring when the humanity of the thing is taken account of, and I’m not sure I get that from Apollo 13.

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