Directed by Ron Howard
Written by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, Based on the Book “Lost Moon” by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
Starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Kathleen Quinlan, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris
How can you tell a historical drama is good? When it keeps you at the edge of your seat despite you knowing the outcome because–after all–it already happened. Apollo 13 is that good and more.
It had been less than a year since man first walked on the Moon, but as far as the American public was concerned, Apollo 13 was just another “routine” space flight–until these words pierced the immense void of space: “Houston, we have a problem.” Stranded 205,000 miles from Earth in a crippled spacecraft, astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) fight a desperate battle to survive. Meanwhile, at Mission Control, astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), and a heroic ground crew race against time–and the odds–to bring them home.
If I were teaching a film class, Apollo 13 would be under the suspense category, despite being more a drama than anything. It can roll with the best Hitchcock ever put out, and the reason is obvious. It is so damn suspenseful despite have the handicap that the events it portrays already occurred that I’m always on edge during the drama and moved to tears by the end. Call me sentimental, call me ridiculous, but this is among Ron Howard’s finest works, if not his absolute best.
Beginning with a watch party at Jim Lovell’s house during Neil Armstrong’s historic moon walk, Apollo 13 already steams full ahead into creating flawless period atmosphere, capturing the cultural zeitgeist and optimism of the era in just under a few minutes. From there, we enter a protracted period before the fateful mission in which human drama over personnel changes force Ken Mattingly off of the 13 crew. Gary Sinise, one of my favorite actors of his generation, easily pulls ahead of his peers in the film, going through a whirlwind of emotion in the film from his devastating grounding to becoming the tireless professional working to save the men when their spacecraft is suddenly crippled in space.
With Mattingly on the ground are a heaping of wonderfully-relatable character actors portraying the Houston flight control team, headed by the great Ed Harris as Flight Director Gene Kranz. Playing a very different character than his rendition of John Glenn in The Right Stuff, Harris’ Kranz is unpolished and upfront, ready to move mountains to bring his men home, all while keeping a straight face that only contorts to shout when the more doubtful of his team suggest failure is inevitable.
But of course, the real stars of the film are Hanks, Paxton, Swigert, and the incredible depiction of spaceflight by Howard and his crew. The three astronauts, despite already being big names by the time of the film, are completely convincing, helped along in their jobs by the great strides made toward total scientific accuracy. The interiors of the Odyssey and the Aquarius are faithfully recreated with stunning attention to detail, and Howard even managed to stuff the sets into a KC-135 to create believable microgravity conditions, resulting in shots that leave the audience shaking their head in disbelief before finally accepting that, “they must have really gone into space to make this movie!”
One more actor to mention is the exquisite Kathleen Quinlan, playing Lovell’s wife Marilyn. Quinlan could have easily disappeared into the background with this role, but she is so stunningly authentic that not only did she garner an Oscar nomination, but she impressed the real Marilyn Lovell herself, who heeped the highest praise upon Quinlan when the film was released.
In the end, Apollo 13 stands on its own as great film and as a worthy companion piece to another Space Race film I have recently reviewed, The Right Stuff. Both depict a time when America was at a difficult and painful crossroads but still had a heaping of pride to swell over that was pure and incredible. And even when that pride turned to fear and terror before our very eyes as three courageous men faced death in the most inhospitable environment known to life, we pulled through together, and showed that anything is possible when humanity feels that it is.