9.19.2011

Apollo 13 (1995)



Real events when told for entertainment often lose their historical accuracy. Such may be the case with Apollo 13, though certainly the gist of the history is preserved. But Apollo 13 isn't a movie merely about the desperate measures taken by three men stranded in space in 1970 and the hundreds of dedicated NASA personnel who worked together to bring them safely home. It's also a story about the year 1970, risk, ingenuity and dreams.

Tom Hanks, fresh off two Oscar-winning performances, plays astronaut Jim Lovell, presenting a complicated portrait of a man brash and reckless enough to be a Navy test pilot, serious and savvy enough to be selected for astronaut rotation with its many attendant public relations duties, and scientific enough to handle the complex physics of what was then the nascent field of space flight. Hanks is joined by Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as fellow astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission. A large supporting cast, including Ed Harris, are all believable as 1970s engineers. (Many are familiar character actors providing rich connectivity for anyone playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.)

The story couldn't be more compelling since it is true: Shortly after lift-off, and too late to abort and return to earth, the main craft suffered an explosion in a minor component that crippled the oxygen and power supplies, with further damage unknown and impossible to assess. The crew moved into the lunar module to stay alive, parsing oxygen and resources for three that was meant for two, and surviving long enough to circle the moon and return. During their transit around the moon they lived without computers, lights and heat. At every stage a fresh challenge arose and the men of NASA proved ingenious at conquering scenarios they had never planned for. Simple things, such as mismatched air filters on the main craft and lunar module, required them to solve old puzzles like fitting a round peg in a square hole with only what could be found on the craft. The solution involved one of the astronauts' socks and plastic wrapping from a manual, among many other components.

That alone would make for an interesting movie. Where this movie exceeds beyond all expectation, and still looks good 15+ years later, is the simulation of 1970 NASA and the space flight itself. To accomplish both of these feats, director Ron Howard used experts who worked in that command center during the crisis and perfected a filming technique during multiple flights using NASA's flightless simulator plane. The ensemble cast, production staff and highly technical experts were balanced by Howard for a polished and compelling result. Personally, I think Howard got rooked by losing the best director Oscar to Braveheart, a movie that had a fraction of the complexity.

The actors all took basic astronaut training and had extensive lessons in the controls and science of that era. What emerges is a strongly believable narrative. After many viewings, I am still unable to decide if the astronauts themselves were brave or foolhardy. They were flying to the moon in a tin can directed by computers that had less capacity for computation than an Atari 2600. A smart phone today could have run the entire system with enough RAM left over to surf Facebook.

The weightless scenes are standouts of acting as inadvertent head bumps and graceless flailing all work to increase the already believable tension. The actors seem comfortable talking and moving when they are all at different gravitational aspects. Another scene that sets the tone is when a key variable is needed to reset the guidance system, Lovell computes the number on paper with a pencil, then asks the guys on the ground to check him. Six or seven white-shirted balding engineers, half of them smoking cigarettes, whip out their slide rules to do the math. These are the heroes of their day, the guys in black-rimmed glasses with pocket protectors and an absolute faith in science and engineering to solve any problem.

The script also takes the time to introduce the stress on the families and something of what the time period was like for NASA wives, who were equally coached in public relations but given little other resources or support during the crisis. They are the only women in the drama as this was a man's world. Deft, short scenes illuminate the strain on Marilyn Lovell and her resilience dealing with a largely absentee husband who was also a military man. Completing the picture of the era are the politicians and worries about budget cuts and the appeal of a space program that the public had largely come to see as routine.

Also delivering a stellar (no pun intended) and imminently rewatchable experience is the score by the long-credentialed James Horner. The launch sequence alone, with a sombre yet moving composition, is stunning both to the ear and eye. The beautiful work is repeated in the closing credits with the addition of the luminous voice of Annie Lennox.

I originally saw this movie on the big screen and again in IMAX release. Both showed off the deep, rich quality of the spacescapes and the moving launch sequence. I was only disappointed in the IMAX version because some scenes were cut. If you haven't see it and it comes to the local art house for a 20th Anniversary night, take it in. You won't be disappointed with the big screen at all. The DVD is also in our collection and I've been known to watch it on cable just because it's there. As with many of my favorites, the score makes it as easy simply to listen to as well as watch.

I enjoyed introducing this movie to my kids because it captures so well the foolhardy bravery and masterful nerdiness that imagined the possibility of space flight and made it happen.

Apollo 13 (1995)

One-Line Summary Apollo 13 (1995): Excellent histo-drama of both the basic facts of the doomed space mission with outstanding direction that creates the 1970s NASA center and the realities of space flight during that time.

What's It Worth? Apollo 13 (1995): I was happy to see it on the big screen once, then again on IMAX and have the widescreen DVD. Don't buy anything BUT the widescreen version. Big Screen

Watch it Again? Apollo 13 (1995): The score alone is one reason I've rewatched this movie many times, plus there are gem moments of nerd supremacy that make me smile. It's also a solid history lesson about the early era of space exploration. ridiculously lots