Apollo 13 (1995)
Dir. by Ron Howard
Starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton and Ed Harris
The true story of Apollo 13, the third manned mission to the moon. Three days into the mission, an oxygen tank explodes during a routine procedure, crippling their spacecraft and making a lunar landing impossible. Working without time or resources, astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert must coordinate with the ground crew back on Earth to stabilize their ship long enough to return home safely.
Like most kids who grew up in America in the 1980s/90s, I went through a phase where I wanted to be an astronaut. Though I was well out of it by the time Apollo 13 came out (and good thing, too. I never had the eyesight for it, and these days I’m about the same size AS a Space Shuttle), there must have been some residual love of space movies in me. I remember seeing the movie in theaters, and it quick became one of my favorite movies on VHS.
I must have a thing for disaster movies set in space. On no less than three occasions, my number one favorite movie for a year has been one involving astronauts in dire circumstances. And while both Gravity and The Martian remain great movies (Gravity a little less so when you can’t watch it in 3D), Apollo 13 has the benefit of being not only a true story, but one that’s as accurate to the facts as they could make a Hollywood historical drama without becoming a straight-up documentary.
Sure, there are some concessions made for a two hour movie. Several people got omitted or combined into a single character, and there were some events that were glossed over or heighted for dramatic effect. But unlike many based-on-a-true story movies, the events of the Apollo 13 mission were already dramatic enough that they really just had to play everything straight. Even some of the more outlandish events depicted, such as Marilyn Lovell losing her wedding ring in the shower the day of the launch, actually happened (though she was apparently able to call a plumber and retrieve the ring in real life).
Pretty much every actor in the entire thing is superb. Tom Hanks, of course, is never not good, and I even managed to buy Kevin Bacon as an astronaut. But the best performance of the bunch is clearly Ed Harris, as Mission Control Flight Director Gene Krantz. There’s one moment, at the end of the film when the spacecraft finally returns to Earth safely, where the camera focuses on Harris as he processes the news. He visibly runs through like a dozen emotions in the space of like five seconds in what might be the single best moment of Harris’s acting career. He very deservedly got a Best Supporting Actor nomination for it, and in my opinion should have won (he got beat by Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, in a fairly strong acting field at the Oscars that year).
Overall, the movie’s attention to detail is staggering. Large portions of the dialogue come directly out of the flight transcripts, the set and costume design is impeccable, and even the hairstyles are on point for the period. There’s a lot of technical jargon thrown around, but I never once felt confused about what was happening at any particular moment. A less film would have dumbed down the dialogue or taken more time to explain every single thing, not trusting the audience to keep up. There is some exposition, in the form of vintage TV broadcasts of reporter trying to explain what was happening to their audience, but those definitely fit in context.
The camera work and editing isn’t super flashy at all, but both are incredibly effective. I particularly love the match cut between Jack Swigert, whooping in celebration at the news that he’s going to the moon, and the sullen, silent face of Ken Mattingly as he’s realizing that he isn’t. The effects are also pretty seamless. There’s quite a bit of CG in this movie (they didn’t use any stock footage of actual launches, I believe), but it still looks good even today, 25+ years later. And of course I can’t not mention the footage shot on the Vomit Comet. This is the first movie to actually show its actors in real, non-faked weightlessness, by virtue of dozens of flights made on NASA’s KC-135 training airplane, which made a series of parabolic dives to provide about 30 seconds of weightlessness to the actors.
Overall, I think that this is Ron Howard’s masterpiece. I’ve probably seen it over 50 times, and I still notice new details that I hadn’t caught before on occasion. It’s as close to a time capsule of the Apollo space program as we’re likely to get, and is a movie I appreciate more with every year as Hollywood becomes increasingly stratified between big noisy scifi action movies and indie dramas with tiny budgets. I don’t think that a studio would have greenlit something this modest today, and cinema would have been worse off for it.
-I don’t actually have anything else this time around. I just love this movie, y’all.