Apollo 13 (1995): Ron Howard’s Meticulous Reconstruction NASA Failed Mission, Starring Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks gets to be practically weightless as astronaut Jim Lovell, in Apollo 13, Ron Howards 1995 film about the ill-fated NASA mission, based on the book by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, Last Moon.

Al Reinert, whose space documentary For All Mankind received an Oscar nomination, partnered on the script with his former editor at Texas monthly, William Broyles. The 1970 trip to the moon, which was interrupted by an explosion in the command module, severely endangered the lives of three astronauts. With time running out, the crew and thousands of others braved near-impossible odds in a daring attempt to guide the capsule earthward. For three days, TV viewers watched in rapt silence, not knowing until the last moment, whether the men of Apollo 13 would come home alive.

At first, it seemed the perfect mission. After three days in space, three Apollo astronauts, Jim Lovell (Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), were finally approaching a long-cherished destination, going to the Moon. Back in Houston, Astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) considered himself unlucky; two days before the launch, he’d been grounded for medical reasons. When Jim Lovell intoned a simple, heart-stopping message across the void of space: “Houston, we’ve got a problem,” the whole world gasped. Something had gone horribly wrong. Power and guidance systems were down, and the supply of oxygen was rapidly dwindling. Lovell, Haise and Swigert faced the grim reality that their capsule, stranded 205,000 miles in space, might never return to earth.

To enjoy Apollo 13, you have to embrace details, lots of them, some routine, some fascinating, about the space program and its personnel. The film is structured as a classic adventure, with the astronauts as explorers, who heroically are forced to withstand bizarre physical humiliations. For better or worse, Howard takes a decidedly straight approach, telling the story in linear way, and assuming that a mission that almost ended in disaster is dramatic enough; he doesnt pump up the events or the characters.

The film follows the astronauts as they prepare for the launch, and then describes the accidents, concluding with the bumpy and terrifying ride home. Contained and predictable as it is, Apollo 13 nevertheless works up excitement. One of the ironies is that not many American were interested in the mission–until things went awry. Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon the previous summer, July 1969, and the American public seemed to be indifferent toward the new attempt.

As played by Hanks, the space-flight vet Jim Lovell comes across as a straight, confident guy with a touch of poetic fancy and whimsy underneath, who can afford to be relaxed. Bill Paxton, as Fred Haise, and Kevin Bacon, as Jack Swigert, are not as interesting or charismatic as Hanks, and thats a problem. However, the technicians and administrations, led by a taut and hostile Ed Harris, show effectively the importance of the esprit de corps; the honor of the whole collective related to the mission is at stake.

According to Howards interpretation, the astronauts and the ground personnel were not swaggering romantic adventurers, but organized military men with a characteristic code of behavior and tightly controlled demeanor. They obeyed orders, did what they were told, and were very loyal to one another. Unlike most American movie adventures, Apollo 13 celebrates not individual but communal (the whole teams) heroism. In this, and other respects, the movie is straight and square white Americana, but nonetheless still stirring and satisfying.

Whenever the film sidetracks from the main narrative, it falters, as with most of its domestic scenes, which are banal. This is particularly the case of the scene in which Lovells prescient wife (Kathleen Quinlan) suffers through premonitory dreams and drops her wedding ring down the shower drain, an act that foreshadows trouble. However, for most of the time, particularly when the module turns red as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, you will be just as tense and scared as the three men.

Authentic and realistic in most details, Apollo 13 displays the gung-ho and can-do attitude, expected of these men. And its a tribute to Howards taut direction that the film is suspenseful, despite its historically preordained happy ending. Problem is, Apollo 13 comes across as too square, embodying such old-fashioned American values as courage in the face of adversity, collective honor, loyalty.

The extensive focus on the mission seems to prelude any in-depth characterization, except for Hanks role. Like Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 opts for simplicity and clarity, putting down, for example, the hippies and counter-cultural movement. Furthermore, there is no reference to Vietnam, the anti-War movement, feminism and sexual politics, and other racial problems that besieged the country in 1970. When Apollo 13 was released, inevitable comparisons were made with Philip Kaufmans 1983 The Right Stuff, a better, more succinct, more ambiguous, and more ironic treatment of the pioneering astronauts.

Nominated for 9 Oscars, Apollo 13 won 2 (See list below). Though most polls predicted it would win the Best Picture Oscar, the award went to its major competitor, Mel Gibson’s violent historical epic, “Braveheart.”

Oscar Nominations: 9

Picture, produced by Brian Grazer
Screenplay (Adapted): William Broyles Jr., Al Reiner
Supporting Actor: Ed Harris
Supporting Actress: Kathleen Quinlan
Art Direction-Set Decoration: Michael Corenblith, Meredeth Boswell
Sound: Rick Dior, Steve Pederson, Scott Millan, David MacMillan
Editing: Mike Hill, Dan Hanley
Visual Effects: Robert Legato, Michael Kanfer, Leslie Ekker, Matt Sweeney

Oscar Awards: 2