Apollo 13: Anniversary Edition
September 25, 2005
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan, Xander Berkeley, Loren Dean, Clint Howard, Ben Marley, Marc McClure, Chris Ellis, Joe Spano, ,
With Apollo 13 (1995) Ron Howard firmly entrenched himself as an A-list Hollywood director. Not only was he making the kind of heartfelt, moving picture that attracts a large, mainstream audience, but he had the powerhouse cast to back it up. Previously, Howard had been known for light, crowd-pleasing comedies like Night Shift (1982) and Splash (1984). However, with the criminally underrated (and, to be honest, flawed) The Paper (1994), he started to bridge the gap between comedy and drama. Apollo 13 marked the successful transition.
Howard’s film takes us back to those heady days when mankind landed on the Moon. It was the dawn of a new age when anything seemed possible and the future held so much promise. It is April 1970 and astronaut Jim Lovell (Hanks) dreams of making a trip to the Moon. He anxiously bides his time until he and his crew—Ken Mattingly (Sinise) and Fred Haise (Paxton)—get their shot. As luck (or fate) would have it, someone in the crew ahead of them develops an infection and they are given the go-ahead. Two days before the launch, Mattingly is kicked off the crew because it is feared that he will develop a case of the measles while in space. His back-up, Jack Swigert (Bacon), fills in and this creates palpable tension between him and Lowell and Haise.
Everything seems to be going smoothly until the third day into the mission when a mechanical malfunction causes a leak in their oxygen tank. At the time, the space program was old news. None of the networks broadcasted Apollo 13’s initial message. It was no longer exciting. The cruel irony is that once the astronauts got into trouble the media and the public at large became interested in them again. Howard does a good job of cutting back and forth from the stranded astronauts trying to stay alive to the ground crew trying to figure out a way to keep them back home. Both groups push themselves to the point of exhaustion as they solve this life-threatening dilemma through ingenious problem-solving and excellent teamwork.
Howard wisely spends the time to let us get to know Lovell and his family and the dynamic between him and his crew members. As a result, we become emotionally invested in them and care about what happens later on. He also makes some excellent directorial choices. When Mattingly is told that he’s out, his reaction is captured in a close-up as disappointment washes over his face and the camera slowly pulls back to reveal him sitting alone. We soon learn that it was Lovell who ultimately made the decision to cut him (his desire to go to the Moon no matter what, perhaps?). As Mattingly leaves with Haise following him, the scene ends as it begin but this time with a shot of Lovell sitting alone, dejected.
The script does lay it on a bit thick with the bad omens that foreshadow the ill-fated mission: Lovell’s car has mechanical problems, his wife loses her wedding ring down the shower drain and his son asks him about the space mission that resulted in the death of three astronauts. But these are minor quibbles and, in some cases (as with the wedding ring incident), actually happened.
Tom Hanks is well cast as the all-American astronaut, Jim Lovell, essaying yet another everyman role that only endeared him further with the movie-going public. It’s no secret that the actor is fascinated by the space exploration (he also produced the critically-lauded HBO mini-series, From the Earth to the Moon) and must’ve really connected personally with the material. He’s supported expertly by Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon, two of the strongest character actors out there. The interplay between the three of them before the accident convincingly conveys the comradrey between each other that is needed to instinctively perform the tasks that are required to survive in outer space.
Partway through Apollo 13 an interesting thing happens. Up until that point, the film’s emphasis was on the heroic astronauts but once it becomes apparent that they are in serious trouble, the film gives more screen time to the ground crew as various scientists wrack their brains trying to figure out how to get them home and in one piece. These guys are just as important and heroic as the astronauts and Howard never lets us forget this. The ground crew is populated by a solid cast of character actors like Clint Howard and Loren Dean. They are led by Ed Harris, whose rock-solid presence evokes another classic movie about the U.S. space program, The Right Stuff (1983). He brings an undeniable amount of gravitas to the role.
Even though the outcome of the astronaut’s fate is widely known, Howard still manages to create and squeeze every last bit of tension out of scenes and make what happens compelling drama. No easy feat but he pulls it off, creating a satisfying and entertaining snap-shot of a moment in history.
The first disc kicks things off with a solid making of documentary entitled, “Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13.” Clocking in at around an hour, it traces the optioning of Jim Lovell’s book by Ron Howard’s production company and how it was turned into a film. All of the principal actors talk about how they got involved and recount entertaining anecdotes about filming. This is a solid retrospective look at the movie.
There is also an audio commentary by director Ron Howard. He didn’t want to make a movie about the space program but instead focus on a specific mission and the danger inherent in launching a rocket into space. It is an engaging track as Howard talks about the historical accuracy of certain scenes and ones that were invented for dramatic purposes.
Also included is an audio commentary by Jim and Marilyn Lovell. Jim tends to dominate the track as he talks about his experiences and how faithfully they were depicted in the movie. It is a nice idea to have the people who actually lived the events shown in the movie comment on them.
There are also production notes and the theatrical trailer.
The second disc features the IMAX Experience version of the movie that runs just under two hours.
“Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond” is a 48-minute documentary that looks at man’s exploration of outer space, from the U.S./Russian competition to get a rocket in space first, to the more recent efforts, like the international space station. This is a good overview and background of the history of space travel and exploration, featuring some top notch archival footage.
Finally, there is “Lucky 13: The Astronauts’ Story,” a 12-minute segment that originally aired on Dateline NBC on July 29, 1995. It takes a look back at the Apollo 13 mission and includes interviews with the Lovells and Fred Haise. This is a nice look at the real incident.