Apollo 13 (1995)

Director: Ron Howard

Producer: Brian Grazer (Universal, Imagine)

Writers: Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger (book), William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert (screenplay)

Photography: Dean Cundey

Music: James Horner

Cast: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, Mary Kate Schellhardt, Emily Ann Lloyd, Miko Hughes, Max Elliott Slade, Jean Speegle Howard, Tracy Reiner, David Andrews, Michele Little, Chris Ellis, Joe Spano, Clint Howard

“This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced.”

“With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

Is Apollo 13 the best movie on space ever done? Fans of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) would disagree, citing that film’s heavy influences on Ron Howard’s film. The earth-based bios of real-life astronauts. The triumphant runway walk in space suits. A mission made possible (in vastly different ways) by Alan Shepard. The awe-inspiring shots of breaking into space. Ed Harris. If any film were to deserve a spot as a runner-up — a nice, shorter, less epic, more entertaining runner-up — Apollo 13 is that film. Like Titanic (1997) and United 93 (2006) after it, the film succeeds in pulling drama from story where we already know the ending. And as inspirational as it is seeing such an on-screen display of human will and ingenuity, it’s all that much more inspiring knowing that the “successful failure” of Apollo 13 actually happened. It’s in this vein of emotional effect that Apollo 13 succeeds most, placing #12 on AFI’s 100 Most Inspirational Films, a list where its father film, The Right Stuff, came in at #19.

Based on the autobiographical novel Lost Moon by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, and produced by Brian Grazer for Howard’s company Imagine Entertainment, Apollo 13 opens on July 20, 1969, at a living room party to watch the historic Apollo 11 moonlanding. Hosting is Neil Armstrong’s backup, Lovell (Tom Hanks), and his beautiful wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan), who share a star-gazing moment together afterward in the back yard. “I want to go back there,” he says, citing his frustration that as a member of Apollo 8, he got as close as 60 nautical miles from the moon but never touched foot on it. A few days later, it appears he will finally get that chance, arriving home to announce that he’s been bumped up from Apollo 14 to the Apollo 13 moon mission, replacing an ear-infected Alan Shepard.

Despite superstitious concerns from others — “Apollo 13, lifting off at 13-hundred hours and 13 minutes, and entering the moon’s gravity on April 13th” — Lovell and his two co-pilots, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), are confidently geared up for the mission. That is until NASA believes Mattingly has possibly contracted the measles and replaces him with “the only bachelor to enter space,” Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). Swigert is ecstatic; Mattingly crushed.

So begins the ill-fated mission, minor glitches building all the way up to Lovell’s infamous line, “Houston, we have a problem.” Apparently, a tank stir has malfunctioned and caused a crippling explosion, leaving the shuttle leaking oxygen and running out of power. As Haise puts it, the ship is “bleeding to death,” and it’s now up to the three astronauts, and the many back at Mission Control, including left-behind Mattingly and flight commander Genze Kranz (Ed Harris), to pull off the most amazing rescue mission in the history of the world, and do it outside the world. This, of course, requires an abortion of the moon mission, thus ending the dreams of Lovell and company, but moonwalking dreams lose meaning when men’s lives are at stake.

To portray these lives, Howard brings in an all-star cast in what’s perhaps the most well-known collection of characters of the ’90s. Tom Hanks anchors the film at the height of his popularity, coming off back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994), while voicing the main character in the year’s biggest hit, Toy Story (1995).

In support, Bacon found a hit that grossed almost as much as Footloose (1984) and A Few Good Men (1992) combined, and Paxton, whose Twister (1996) competed with Apollo 13 for Best Visual Effects that Oscar season, provides the film’s outer space comic relief, as he so effectively did in Aliens (1986). For the part of Mattingly, Sinise was an clever cast, just a year after playing Lieutenant Dan to Hanks’s Gump.

Ed Harris was an easy cast, having played John Glenn in The Right Stuff, and his performance is the best in the entire film, proving why he’s one of the best actors of his generation. We absolutely believe the determination in his eyes when he says, “We’ve never lost an American in space and we’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch,” a commitment that makes us proud of his Oscar nomination. Quinlan joined him with a nomination of her own, playing the part of the concerned wife dead-on and being solely responsible for maintaining the vital human side of the story, the fear, the danger, and ultimately, the inspiration — “I bet Jannie Armstrong doesn’t get a wink of sleep tonight. When you were on the far side on [Apollo] 8, I didn’t sleep at all. I just vacuumed.”

Later in the film, when a skeptical Mission Control man says, “You can’t run a vacuum cleaner on 12 amps,” viewers know that Oscar-nominated screenwriters Al Reinert (For All Mankind) and William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away) have produced a cleverly constructed script. Other such echoes support this claim, like an analogy of the shuttle as a lightbulb burning out and then an overhead projector’s lightbulb popping, or foreshadowing the ship’s explosion with others quipping “we have a problem.”

With only the casualty of a few historical facts, Reinert and Broyles create a masterfully compelling drama and, like The Pride of the Yankees (1942), turn a real life quote into the stuff of movie legend — #50 on AFI’s 100 Quotes. Their brightest moments come when any sort of ingenuity is involved, be it Harris’s chalk talk convincing his men to fit a square peg into a round hole, or Hanks’s assertion that “we just put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat.” Essentially, space travel is testing human intelligence, like the theories of Newton, and seeing if our understanding of the universe is indeed on track with the truth. But they also ballance it by occasionally fighting against the super-intellect, like having the guys rip off their bio-reading vests so Mission Control can’t check their vital signs, also a nice trick so that later we viewers don’t know whether or not they’ve survived reentry.

Still, above all else, the performances, the quotes, the story, Apollo 13 is a powerful visual experience. No wonder an IMAX version was released in 2002. In addition to winning Oscars for Best Editing and Best Sound Mixing, the film also earned a nomination for Best Visual Effects, losing only because it was competing against  the visual phenomenon of Independence Day (1996). Such a decision was fitting, because while Apollo 13 features impressive CG exterior shots of the space shuttle Aquarius, much of the “effects” were the real deal. For much of the film, Howard took his cast and crew on the rarest of “on-location” shoots — 38,000 feet above the earth in the KC-135 “Vomit Comet”, a trainer aircraft in Houston used by NASA to simulate weightlessness. Firing up at a 45-degree angle at Mach one speeds, the ship would follow a curved, parabolic path and then, on the way down, create the brief condition of anti-gravity. Thus, filming had to take place in 25-second increments, requiring 612 different flights and almost four hours of weightlessness to complete the footage needed for the film. (A)

“On the whole, our crew and cast just held in beautifully,” Howard said. “Everybody got green, but not too many people actually lost it … Space movies have generally avoided trying to show zero gravity because ultimately you can’t, but we weren’t bound by all the tricks used in the past to simulate it. There’s no fake slow motion kind of shots. We didn’t need the old tricks because we had the real thing. It was difficult to do, but it was an extraordinary experience. … I was upsidedown with my little megaphone shouting out directions. It was colorful to say the least.” (A)

In reading such a quote, one can just picture Howard speaking and has to smile. Is there a more likalbe guy in all of Hollywood? Perhaps we’ve been trained to love him by growing up with him in The Andy Griffith Show (1960), American Graffiti (1973) and Happy Days (1974). Or, maybe, despite our better knowledge, we are secretly drawn to him as a pioneer of popular entertainment, the next-best-thing to Spielberg in the way that Lovell was the understudy of Neil Armstrong: shooting for the moon, not quite reaching it, but rousing audiences in the process. It is no coincidence that Lovell’s daughter in the film (Mary Kate Schellhardt) goes from hippie to subdued girl in prayer. For 30 years now, Howard has been the epitome of safe movie-making, and a reliable hitmaker at that, from Splash (1984) to Backdraft (1991), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) to his pair of Russell Crowe collaborations, A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Cinderella Man (2005).

But if one had to pick just one film to define his filmmaking legacy, make it Apollo 13. Not only does it feature Howard’s trademark of casting his younger brother Clint (look for him in Mission Control), it also shows technical flourishes to back his Directors’ Guild of America award for Best Director, despite his not receiving even a nomination from the Academy — the slow zoom in on Hanks as he watches Armstrong’s first step; the shot of Hanks covering the moon with his thumb and later covering the earth the same way; the close-shot of Quinlan’s eyeball as she awakens from a nightmare; the camera’s initial reluctance to reveal Ed Harris, seeing only his Mission Control vest before panning to his face; the high angle, computer-generated camera craning down from the tip of the shuttle as the arms of the launchpad frame break away during liftoff; the decision to cut the “break-up of the Beatles” scene just before Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” says “excuse me while I kiss the sky;” the seemless inclusion of real archived news footage; and most of all, the nailbiting pacing, particularly during reentry.

The film was received well by the critics, to the tune of a 95% on rottentomatoes. And in TV Guide’s countdown of the Top 50 Movies of All Time, Apollo 13 ranked #34, ahead of such mainstays as The Graduate (1967), Jaws (1975) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The mainstream popularity has not been any less significant. The film grossed $172 million at the box office and continues to influence, be it the Howard-Hanks-Grazer-produced From the Earth to the Moon (1998) or Sinise hosting the Mission: Space ride at Disney’s Epcot Center. Why is the film so popular? That answer is easy — because it is so inspirational. Each viewing, audiences hold their collective breaths until finally exhaling in a moment of cheers, a moment much like the teary-eyed expression of Harris’s character. So after that, the question then becomes why is a film like Apollo 13 so inspirational? James Horner’s Oscar-nominated score has something to do with it, but the real answer lies in a quote by Hanks early in the movie.

Guiding a bunch of tourists at the Vehicle Assembly Building in Cape Kennedy, Fl., Hanks says, “This is divine inspiration, folks. It’s the best part of each one of us — the belief that anything is possible. Things like a computer that can fit into a single room and hold millions of pieces of information.” Audiences of 1995, and today for that matter, instantly recognize that we’ve already achieved that feat, a digital age signaling the next step of human advancement. Apollo 13 taps into our collective pride for the human race, as innovators, as intelligent beings, as dreammakers. So what’s next? Mankind needs another moment like that, a project bigger than ourselves that we can all get behind. To dare the impossible. It’s all just a matter of setting an impossive goal and then devoting the resources to achieve it. As Hanks says, “From now on we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. It’s not a miracle, we just decided to go.”


CITE A: DVD booklet

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