NASA would have you believe that accidents never happen, that the meticulously preplannimg and exacting preparations for each launch, no matter how ambitious, guaranteed such a safety record. Of course, some of us have borne witness to the agency’s occasionally gaffs, missteps both minor (scrubbed launch after delayed return) and major (Apollo 1, the Shuttle Challenger). Among these shared nightmares of horrific mass memory is Apollo 13. On 11 April, 1970, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise escaped the Earth’s atmosphere on a planned mission to the Moon. It was supposed to be the third time American’s would traverse the lunar surface. Instead, it wound up being one of those “never” moments, a tenuous test of everyone involved both on the ground, and in the airless vacuum of space.
Based on the book Lost Moon by Lovell, former child star turned director Ron Howard fashioned his film Apollo 13 (new to Blu-ray in a 15th Anniversary Edition) into a combination of rousing crowd-pleaser, intense nail-biter, and unadulteratedly patriotic flag waver. It featured an excellent central performance by Tinseltown everyman Tom Hanks, celebrated turns by sure shots Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, and Ed Harris, and brilliant, purposefully negligible CG work meshed with actual physical weightlessness. At the time, Howard was praised for putting his cast in an actual anti-gravity simulator, a plane which could mimic the conditions in orbit. The result of such realism, complemented by the narrative’s deep emotion pull, produced a singular work of star spangled specialness.
For Lovell (Hanks), Apollo 13 was his last chance to walk on the Moon, a reward for years of dedicated service. The plan was simple – hook up with buddies Haise (Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Sinise) – and light the candle. Sadly, just before launch, signs of a possible illness grounds one of the crew, and upstart playboy Swigert (Bacon) gets the call to act as a replacement. Though confident of his abilities, Lovell and Haise aren’t comfortable with such last minute substitutions. Their fears pay off when a misfire in the oxygen tank hobbles the spacecraft, putting the entire mission – and their lives – in jeopardy. With the Moon now out of the picture, it is up to the trio to figure out a way to keep going while NASA and flight director Eugene Kranz (Harris) figure out a way to bring them back safely…if at all.
Setting itself up as a historic action adventure and tossing in some edge of your seat thrills just to keep things lively, Apollo 13 is a terrific representation of that most clichéd of collective ideals – the indomitable American spirit. It tells a true to life story with authenticity and style and features acting that never showboats or grandstands. For his part, Howard proves a deft director, bringing diverse material like family strife, early media demands, professional squabbling, and complex problem solving to vivid life. While he owns an Oscar for the horrid A Beautiful Mind, he really deserved one here. With a cast that easily matches his meaning and F/X that expertly illustrate the precarious pros and cons of space travel, Apollo 13 does a magnificent job of commemorating, and for most, explaining, how close the US came to losing three of its best and brightest.
This is really a director’s showcase, a chance for Howard to use all his tricks to realize such touch and go tenets as time and place (this is the early ’70s, after all), early technology, group think problem solving, individual ingenuity, and personal bravery. He also achieves an excellent balance between the modern desire to see things presented realistically and the inherent magic in movies. This is especially true when the Apollo rocket finally launches. As we see the ship traveling at all manner of optically unavailable angles, as the camera careens under the rockets and through the smoke-filled air surrounding the site, we instantly understand the lure of space travel. It’s everything science fiction promised, and much, much more.
There is also a very human dynamic at play, Lovell trying to please the various members of his distraught family including put upon astronaut wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan), an aging mother, and various teen and pre-adolescent children. He is also angry that Mattingly cannot fly, though the seasoned vet will get his chance to save the day when someone is needed to man the simulator and figure out a way to get the stranded crew home. There is also an interesting interplay between Kranz and his button-down staff, a group of men more familiar with pushing pencils and playing with slide rules than saving the day. Yet just like elsewhere in Apollo 13, the limits of human endurance and invention are tested and pushed, resulting in answers no one could have anticipated and conclusions no one could have expected.
As a populist title for over a decade now, many will wonder if the new Blu-ray is worth the investment. Easily, the improved image and sound are compelling, as are the bonus features (many of which have been ported over from previous HD and DVD incarnations of the title). Among the best is a commentary track from Howard, as well as another featuring Jim and Marilyn Lovell. In addition, there is an excellent hour long documentary on the doomed flight. There’s also some intriguing making-of material, especially the meticulous recreation of Mission Control, and a bit of superficial historical context. Overall, it’s a great package and does a good job of explaining the many hardships the production had to overcome.
It’s sad when you think that Americans have become almost blasé about space travel. Where once the cosmos was viewed as the ‘final frontier’ between man and his seemingly infinite ability to push the limits of science, now it’s a computer generated afterthought, far less intriguing than the newest Apple iProduct or some scandalous celebrity gossip. Apollo 13 reminds us of a time not too long ago when the United State rallied around itself to support a group of far thinkers in their endeavor to discover our planet’s place among the galaxy. Today, such a sentiment may seem corny or even clichéd. Thanks to Ron Howard and his wonderful film, we can see how silly such a belief really is.