APOLLO 13 (1995) *** 1/2. Directed by Ron Howard. Produced by Brian Gazer. Written by William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert, based on the book "Lost Moon" by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger. Cinematography, Dean Cundey. Editing, Mike Hill and Dan Hanley. Production design, Michael Corenblith. Costumes, Rita Ryack. Music, James Horner. Cast: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, and many others. A Universal release. 135 Mins. Rated PG.
You may exit the theater exhilarated, or upset at the current funding of NASA, or puzzled. You may wonder why, with the scientific marvels of 1995 (before which the marvels of 1970 pale) and the jaw-dropping film magic that is becoming so common; why with all that problem solving we cannot do anything about hunger, poverty, crime, income disparities, poor education, or all those things that end in "a": Bosnia, Chechnya, Armenia, Mafia...
"Apollo 13" is a docudrama, the reconstruction of that 1970 mission that was to put on the moon Commander James Lovell (Tom Hanks), Command module pilot John Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Lunar module pilot Fred Haise (Bill Paxton). Apollo 13 was launched on April 11 at 13:13 hours, military time.
There was some pre-launch banter about superstitions and number 13, humorously dismissed. Oddly though, it was April 13 when an oxygen tank explosion in the service module -- which sat below Odyssey, the command module -- rendered the latter useless. The crew had to retreat to Aquarius, the lunar module built for two astronauts and stocked with fuel, oxygen and essentials for only two days. It was April 17 when the three men, back inside Odyssey, finally splashed down, with its occupants alive and, considering their ordeal, amazingly well.
I conducted a poll with a plus or minus 50 percent margin of error. It tells me that almost all the people who were children or unborn in 1970 know nothing of Apollo 13 or at best have some very hazy notions. Haziness also prevails among the older interviewees, with only a small minority getting close to the facts. The conclusion is that the film, over and above being a fine movie, is an excellent, educational page of American history.
This is now. 1970 was then, yet, at the lift-off of Apollo 13 and until the accident, there was minimal media coverage. Space flights were old hat, the public was blase, the media had trained it to pay attention only to new sensations. That was the time when we had become almost immune to horrible Vietnam footage on TV, just as now we take in stride the images from Bosnia -- or, as in the past few days, we and the media pay scant attention t the extraordinary rendez-vous of Atlantis and Mir.
Those who remember the press coverage after the explosion seem to think that the danger was downplayed in public. The movie, outside some little-seen documentaries, finally vindicates the real thing and the people who had the right stuff in 1970. The audiences of the film are not in for major suspense or surprises. Before seeing the movie, they know the outcome. But as the picture takes us step by step through the crucial higlights of the mission, it is impossible not to be be impressed both by what took place in 1970 and by the way the film was made 25 years later.
In both cases we have triumphs of technology (even with the mission's defective equipment), of ingenuity, team work and human persistence. And if you see the film armed with the information that every single shot in it is original and made-to-order, that absolutely no documentary footage was used, you may spend as much time wondering how the filmmakers did it as you do the astronauts.
You should also know that the weightlessness of the astronauts is genuine and accomplished without devices, wires, slow motion or computer trickery. The moviemakers used NASA's own modified Boeing 707 in which they crammed equipment and people. The plane would climb at a 45-degree angle, get close to Mach One speed, then start on a parabola, during which there are 23 seconds of weightlessness. It looks to me like a variation of a roller coaster ride. Overall 612 parabolas were flown for a total of 3 hours and 54 minutes of weightlessness. Pretty amazing.
It is surprising too how well the generally lightweight director Ron Howard managed to handle the very serious subject of this film. Aided immensely by a good, factual, no-nonsense script, a personnel that takes a dozen pages to list, a dialogue that reads like a transcript, and actors who neither strike heroic poses nor hog the limelight, Howard opted for real drama rather than add-on movie colorfulness, melodramatics or cuteness. His film nicely keeps down dramatic licenses or fabrications. What little is invented (e.g. a gathering of astronauts at a party) does no harm but helps the exposition.
Howard and Co. also avoided over-personalizing the main characters. Yes, we cannot possibly ignore that we are watching the familiar faces of Hanks, Bacon, Sinise or Harris. There is some distraction in this. Ideally, total unknowns would have made the film more convincing, but then, without big names there would have been no film given the realities of the star-driven movie industry. As it is however,our consciousness of those stars intrudes as little as possible, especially as all play everything straight.
The makers also do a grand job of the oldest film device for building suspense, the one that D.W. Griffith launched on a big scale in his "The Birth of a Nation." This is cross-cutting between the astronauts in space and the people on earth, mostly the Houston Mission Control staff who are in constant touch with the trio. Better yet, the movie gives credit where it is due, and conveys equally the interaction between space and terra firma, while keeping the complex techno-talk as lucid as possible.
The entire setup is most convincing. I would not go as far as to use the reviewer's cliche "You feel that you are there." No you don't, not any more than with movies that show perils in submarines or agonies in death camps -- unless you yourself have been through the real experience. You can probably identify with love stories, or workplace movies or snarled-traffic comedies, but not with the astronauts. Even so you certainly get pulled in by what yousee and you remain involved to the very end.