Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Jim Lovell (book), Jeffrey Kluger (book)
Stars: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon
The late 1960s to early 1970s must have been both an exiting and terrifying time to be alive. The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was the catalyst for mankind’s exploration of the Moon, albeit with the added caveat of an impending nuclear armageddon lingering at the back of everyone’s minds. The US still continued to plow ahead with their lunar missions and space program, even after they had won the sabre rattling, glorified flexing contest that was the space race.
If you ask me, it wasn’t about scientific studies or advancement. The US were determined to establish utter dominance in the field whilst giving their Russian counterparts a regular reminder of who was boss at a time when both were arguably a genuine match for each other. Regardless though, NASA’s achievements, their advancement of technology and daring can’t be overlooked or downplayed. I know there’s people out there that still think the Moon landings were faked, but they’re tin foil hat wearing, loons with a predisposition for eating Cheetos and sitting in darkened basements.
Overwhelming success and the meeting of JFK’s wish for getting a man on the moon by the end of the 60s aside though, it wasn’t all plain sailing for everyone’s favourite boffins. As the brilliant Ron Howard film Apollo 13 highlights all too vividly, they were never far away from potential human tragedy. The state of the art technology at that time is now looking rather simplistic to say the least and not at all the kind you’d want to be reliant on taking you the 384,400km distance required to reach our nearest celestial neighbour. It’s this story of near tragedy that Howard portrays with exceptional detail.
It follows a quartet of astronauts, though primarily Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), a man who was a member of Apollo 8 and became one of the first people to orbit the Moon. He was originally intended for the Apollo 14 mission, but the original commander for 13 was deemed too inexperienced and therefore his big day in the lunar sun was brought forward. Sadly, Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), one of the original trio, contracted measles and was replaced after some protestations from Lovell. The two other men were Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). I’ve mentioned this before in a profile we did of Bacon, but this is one of the best leading quartets that I’ve seen in a film.
The story pretty much tells itself at this point, such is the infamy of the doomed mission. But if you’ve been hiding under a rock for forty odd years then I’ll do my best to summarise in the briefest of manners.
The Apollo 13 mission was originally scheduled to land on the Moon, like the two that preceded it and the four that followed, but as anyone with an eye for history will already know, that didn’t happen. They encountered a few technical difficulties, including a second stage engine prematurely cutting off before leaving the Earths atmosphere, but the fatal blow to the crews hopes of tanning on the lunar dunes with a bud light came when a liquid oxygen tank exploded. This left the other tank leaking, with attempts at containing it failing, sparking off a frenetic attempt to hatch up a plan for their safe return home.
As you can hopefully tell, that is a pretty spectacular story for a Hollywood period drama. Though, as I’ve often noted, it’s not the traditional hoorah, USA, chest thumpathon that they could’ve opted to make. It’s a delicate story of hope, disappointment, human strength and ingenuity, but more importantly its understated in its application. The plot is gripping, full to the brim with tension, exhilarating highs and crotch kicking lows, and despite already knowing the outcome, it has you willing them to the Moon and praying for a safe return when it’s cruelly snatched from their grasp. You care for these characters and that’s down to a combination of factors.
Firstly, as I mentioned before, the acting is fantastic across the board. Tom Hanks is already an established acting great and was even at this point in 95. This performance came off the back of Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, and he even had Toy Story in the can too. It’s his film, make no mistake about it, but Bacon, Sinise and Paxton are all superb too. Kathleen Quinlan as Jim’s wife Marilyn and Ed Harris as Gene Kranz also deliver standout performances. We even get the customary appearance from Clint Howard. Secondly, the brilliant score from James Horner. I absolutely love the music in this film, it’s stirring, pulls on the heart strings in points and drives the drama perfectly.
Finally, the cinematography, attention detail and research that went into making this feel real was off the scale. Dean Cundey has worked on many a great film and he brings all of that expertise to the table in Apollo 13.
They built scale model replicas of the actual crafts used on the mission, cutting them in half to allow the cameras to get up close and personal. Not only does this immerse the viewer into the film, because you almost feel like you’re there, but it captures the cramped environment these guys had to work with perfectly. Then you take into account them going up in special planes, to get zero gravity shots, each lasting twenty odd seconds a time, just to capture the actual floating the astronauts experienced and you get a sense of the dedication they had in making this feel as authentic as possible. No wonder it nabbed the Oscar for best editing.
There’s truly inspirational moments to be had too. The sequence where the NASA officials frantically try to deduce a plan for fitting a square object into a circular opening, using just the things available to the guys in space. A perfect example of human ingenuity. The sight of Mattingly spending hours in the test module, going through every possible way to get his friends home. The solemn acceptance from Lovell that he’ll never get a chance to walk on the Moon as he looks down upon its surface and just experiencing what these poor buggers had to go through, knowing fine well it actually happened and they managed to overcome unimaginable adversity to get back in one piece.
This is one of my favourite films from the 1990s. I have nothing but great memories of watching it as a young boy, it’s a nostalgia trip and it explores a necessary message that some could do with learning. That even in subjective failure or moments of crisis, there’s something to learned. It explores much more than that though. But fundamentally, it’s just a great watch. It’s a period piece, which I love anyway, it’s a biopic based off Jim Lovells own experiences, so you can’t get any closer to the real events if you tried and it’s got some fantastic actors bringing their A game.
I can’t not recommend this one.