Apollo 13 (1995)

Director: Ron Howard

Starring: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan

As a small boy, there were two subjects which interested me above all other things. One was dinosaurs and the other, thanks in large part to “Star Trek,” was outer space. I always got a kick out of looking up at the stars through my telescope. I loved reading about the planets of our solar system and their moons, and the history of our world’s space program was particularly fascinating. Cut to the first launch of a manned space mission that I ever witnessed. The day was January 28, 1986. Does that date sound familiar? Indeed, it was the day the space shuttle Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, only to explode just 73 seconds into its flight. All seven crew members were killed, including Concord, New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. Mind you, I was not in Cape Canaveral on that day, but rather I was sitting in my parents’ living room in Knoxville, Tennesee, my father by my side. The very first exposure I had to a live television broadcast of Man traveling into space, and it just so happened to be the first time an American space mission had resulted in loss of life (the Apollo 1 fire notwithstanding, as that mission never got past the testing phase). The Challenger disaster was almost preceded by an even more horrific tragedy, as an oxygen tank explosion ended the chances of Apollo 13 making its scheduled landing on the Moon and could very well have ended with three astronauts either succumbing to the lack of breathable air and extreme cold of space, or burning up in the atmosphere upon re-entry.

The movie begins on July 20, 1969. Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), who flew two Gemini missions as well as Apollo 8, watches with his family as fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to set foot on the surface of the Moon. My own parents were of high school age at this time and my father, thinking quickly, snapped some Polaroids of the TV… what passed for screen captures back in the day.

Lovell is determined he wants to return to the Moon, this time to land on it, as the Apollo 8 mission only involved a Lunar orbit. He gets his chance when he, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) are awarded the Apollo 13 mission, scheduled for launch on April 11, 1970. The computer I am using to write this review is more efficient, and can therefore be said to be better equipped to send men to the Moon than the ones that were actually being used back in those days. For that matter, your cell phone is of superior technology to the computer onboard the Apollo space vehicle. One week prior to the launch of Apollo 13, Mattingly is replaced with his backup, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), when it is learned that Mattingly may have been exposed to the measles. If that had been the only hiccup the mission would face, there would be no movie.

For reasons I’ll never quite understand, it was decided that public interest in the space program had dwindled down to the point where it seemed pointless for the TV networks to give the Apollo 13 mission the kind of coverage they had given to the previous two. That all changes when one of the Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks explodes, and the other is left venting its contents into space. With the astronauts lives now in peril, suddenly everyone’s interested. At least one of the networks even wants to set up shop on the front lawn of Jim Lovell’s house, to which Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) strongly objects. In space, Swigert’s inclusion had already created a certain amount of tension among the new lineup, tension which is heightened once things go wrong. Meanwhile, the best and brightest at Mission Control in Houston, Texas scramble to come up with a viable plan to get their men home alive. “Failure is not an option,” Mission Director Gene Krantz (Ed Harris) tells them.

That Lovell, Haise and Swigert manage to find their way back to Earth and survive re-entry is no great spoiler. You can look those facts up in the history books. Director Ron Howard nonetheless manages to build suspense through the audience’s question of how their dilemma resolves itself. Even as we know no harm will come to them, the audience still gets caught up in the moment. The visuals in this movie are also quite stunning, none greater than the launch sequence. For the movie “The Right Stuff,” the actual footage of the Mercury 7 launches were used. Here, the massive Saturn V rocket (on top of which sat the Apollo 13 capsule) is entirely CGI. But, oh goodness, is it ever a sight to behold! More so, I’m sure, for anyone of my parents’ generation, for whom the entire movie is like a giant time capsule.

As much as the movie evokes memories for my father of listening to the radio for updates on Apollo 13’s status as a 16-year old, the film itself holds its own personal significance in my life. Aside from his work on “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” James Horner’s soundtrack for “Apollo 13” is one of his finest compositions. I originally saw “Apollo 13” in the theater at the appropriate age of 13. Shortly afterward, I bought a copy of the soundtrack on cassette, and I brought that tape along with me for school field trips to Williamsburg, Virginia, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Orlando, Florida. I have strong memories of pushing the PLAY button as soon as the bus began to move, first hearing the drums, then the trumpet, and then the strings in the opening seconds of Track #1 – “Main Theme.” Even now, listening to it brings me back to each of the liftoffs of my own journeys in to unexplored territory. For this reason alone, I am retroactively fitting “Apollo 13” into my list of all-time favorite films.

Ron Howard and Tom Hanks weren’t done with the story of the Apollo Space Program. Not by a longshot. The 12-part 1998 mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon” is a must-see. The episodes surrounding the Apollo 7 and Apollo 12 missions are my favorites. Though it may upset some of my friends who are fans of the movie “Braveheart,” I really think that Ron Howard and “Apollo 13” were robbed at the Oscars in 1995. But then, space movies just aren’t attractive enough to the Academy. “The Right Stuff” and “Gravity” were each also nominated for Best Picture in their respective years (1983 and 2013), and both also lost. The bigger tragedy is the current state of the American Space Program. I hold no animosity towards anyone for the retirement of the Space Shuttle. That had been long overdue. But were we not supposed to be able, according to our science-fiction writers, to fly commercially to the Moon by now, not to mention preparing for manned missions to Mars? Within “Apollo 13” itself, a monologue from Hanks as Lovell laments the fact that no one has set foot on the Moon since Eugene Cernan stepped back onto the Apollo 17 Lunar Module for departure on December 14, 1972. More than 41 years later, we still don’t have an answer as to when we’ll be going back. What we do have is an entire generation of Americans (myself included), with a second one growing in number every day, who have never experienced this level of awe and wonder for themselves outside of what they read about or see in archival footage. As great as movies like “Apollo 13” are, they can never take the place of the real thing. I would very much like to see at least one Lunar mission happen within my lifetime. Until then, I’ll keep watching the stars.


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