Director: Ron Howard
Writer: William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert; Lost Moon by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
Cinematographer: Dean Cundey
Producer: Brian Grazer
by Jon Cvack
Watching a critically acclaimed big-budgeted on 4k UHD is like watching a DVD or BluRay for the first time. The way in which the quality improves provides a near-religious experience. For the cost of an iPhone you can now have a home television experience that’s as close to a movie theater as it’s ever been.
I haven’t seen Apollo 13 in probably around 10 years, if not longer. It’s the type of movie I’ve seen often enough to remember the major details, but of which the minor details have faded for time; where you forget how good the great scenes are. This is one of the greatest popular American films of the 20th century. It is that strange experience of failing to remember just how incredible the film is in terms of story and craft.
It opens up on July 1969 as Neil Armstrong is about to take the first steps on the moon. We’re at a packed party with all of the modernist greens, yellows, oranges, and browns from the era. We meet Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) who’s playing host, dealing with his high-strung daughter, and from the get-go - with Hank’s magical charm - we like the guy.
Recently, on NPR one of the guests mentioned how the reason Tom Hanks is so rarely nominated compared to his great body of work is because he so deeply falls into the character that we forget we’re even watching a performance. Hanks as Lovell is perhaps the finest example of this. I took issue with First Man (2018) being a film about a narcissist who’s willing to hurt anyone and everyone around him, all in an effort to achieve his dream. There was little redemption in his pursuit of the moon, and for a character based on of America’s most inspiring figures, I found the character unlikable and ruthlessly self-seeking. Hanks’ Jim Lovell is an equally determined man, and Howard instead focuses on the struggle of being a good person against that passion for greatness. Lovell wants to get to the moon as much as anyone else, realizing the politics required in getting to that position. That is, Hanks pulls off the miraculous in having the same self-centered tendencies while providing a great deal of charm and empathy; a feat only this unique and phenomenal actor could possibly provide and for whatever reason this “every man” accomplishment is often overlooked. Somehow an actor who gets the viewers to love them just doesn’t get the same recognition.
After the moon landing, Jim gives one of his tours to some politicians to be interrupted by his boss Deke Slayton (Chris Ellis) to inform him that due to the previous crew being exposed to the measles, they’ve been bumped up. They are the next team going to the moon.
They’re comprised of Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise). During a simulation where they have to doc the rocket pod with the space module, Ken manages with all the obstacles the tech crew throws at him. Even still, after three hours, he requests they do it again. They’ve gotten to a point where they can anticipate each other’s moves. For anyone working with a crew, the dynamic is palpable; further testament to the power behind these roles as we immediately believe they’ve been working together for years.
That all comes to an end when after NASA runs some blood tests, they discover that Mattingly has the measles. Deke informs Jim that they have to cut him. Just days from launch, Jim is furious and concerned. Within 72 hours they’ll have to train the reserve crew Command Module Pilot Jack Swiger (Kevin Bacon), who soon fails in his first simulation. The sequence is brilliant, as Fred and Jim break the news to Mattingly, with Jim taking responsibility for pulling Mattingly off, in a move that, again, only Tom Hanks could pull off; doing something he doesn’t need to do, simply because it’s the honorable and respectable thing. From there, during the simulation, Bacon also shines as we watch his utter embarrassment in failing to perform for his team who’s especially concerned with their new member.
So leads us up to one of the most iconic scenes in modern film history, as the crew gets suited up for take off, boarding the rocket and getting strapped in. It’s cut between the Houston Command Center, led by Flight Director Gene Kanz (Ed Harris), along with Ron Howard’s brother Clint Howard as Electrical, Environmental and Consumables Manager Sy Liebergot and dozens of other men in shirts and ties and glasses, each responsible for their own individual item.
The longer time goes on there more in awe I am over what they accomplished with the earliest forms of electronic computing, somehow using radio waves to communicate thousands of pieces of information from a ship flying to the moon, using math and science to figure out to build rocket engines capable of launching from Earth and following complex laws of propulsion and gravity to help a rocket connect to modules, land on the moon, and then take off again; having absolutely zero certainty that their formulas will work.
It’s this uncertainty that plays throughout the film. Howard explores the superstition around the launch. For those who don’t recall, Jim’s has heard stories about the Apollo 1 mission and how the astronauts were stuck on the ship after a fire broke out and burned alive. Bad science led to flammable coolant used in the plumbing and bad engineering cause a wiring shortage. It portrayed the dangers of the Apollo mission and the faith required by future teams to believe they’re equipped with a sound team and crew.
Nevertheless, after the Apollo 12 team is forced to drop out, the media immediately discusses the number 13, worsened with Ken Mattingly’s 48 hour pre-flight replacement and when Jim’s wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan) loses her wedding ring in the shower. It’s never enough for us to believe any of it mattered so much as the coincidences surrounding the disaster that helped portray a sense of dread and unease.
Marilyn’s fully aware of the danger, and Quinlan provides an equally powerful performance as someone attempting to hide her fear and unease, though showing just enough so that Jim knows. It’s this nuance that provides a more fulfilling look into the human drive for greatness. Jim knows she’s scared and we’re left wondering if his friendly demeanor is to calm his family, calm himself, or is altogether genuine. Perhaps all three.
Counter to the simulations, Jack Swiger connects the module with just a bit of friction. They hop out of their seats and we see what shouldn’t even be possible. The men are floating. It’s not a trick, digital effects or with wires, but actually floating as though in zero gravity. For those who don’t know, they built a small set in an airplane that climbs to the sky’s upper limits and then soars to the ground at the speed of gravity, creating a gravity-like environment. I’m not sure what is real or fake, as the two blend flawlessly together. I’ve yet to see any movie that matches its realism.
While shooting a live feed meant to broadcast to all of the major networks, Marilyn discovers that no one’s deciding to play it. Although only the second moon landing, they’ve decided that going to the moon has little interest from the public. They conduct their interviews and wish eac other goodbye, unaware of how few are watching. Swiger then enters into some routine housekeeping. Houston tells him to mix the tanks and he does and there’s an explosion; alarms sounds and lights ignite across the panel; unsure of what’s going on they lose control of the ship as Houston attempts to find out what’s going on.
It’s a fascinating sequence as Howard dives into the individual layers - there is Houston who wants to avoid giving bad information and/or jumping to conclusion. As Gene Kranz demands, what they need to know is what they actually know. “Let’s work the problem,” he says. The second dynamic is the utter horror in realizing that the mission could be jeopardy, or worse, they will not survive. The third is Marilyn’s struggle to keep her family calm and confident that they’ll see their dad once again, and that she especially won’t lose the man she loves. The fourth when Ken Mattingly returns to help, determined to figure out what to do.
Jim, Jack, and Fred soon learn that they’re to transfer to the module, detach it from the rocket, and return to Earth. Heartbroken and with the moon filling the tiny lunar window, they confirm, though the problems persist. For one thing, having shut down much of the mechanics to prevent a fire, they’re now running on limited power - 20 amps which Mattingly jokingly compares to having enough juice to run a toaster. He hops into the simulator in order to try and figure out both what he can shut off and how to shut it off without shorting out the whole system.
The second problem they face is one of my favorite scenes from the film as they discover carbon dioxide leaking into the main cabin and demand the engineers take all the materials they would have aboard the ship in order to create a filter; an analogy I’ve used on our film Road to the Well (2016) time and time again and is fitting for any problem. Looking at what you have - whether materials or power - and seeing how you can use them to solve your problem.
The final problem involves having to use the little juice they have in order to correct their trajectory in a single chance. If they fail, they’ll lose Earth altogether and drift off into space, immediately painting a portrait of how utterly terrifying it’d be to know that starvation (or perhaps carbon dioxide poisoning) is the only fate to await them; raising the stakes sky high as another thrilling scene takes place.
The story of course catches the world by storm, portraying the cynical media environment where bleeding gets reading and the entire nation tunes in, extending all the way to the Vatican where a masse of people pray for the astronauts. It leaves you nostalgic for the days when the country could unify behind a cause and simply hope for what is right and good; cheering for the scientists, engineers, pilots, and mathematicians to solve the seemingly endless problems.
All of them are solved, and it’s through accomplishing them one by one that the film leaves you on edge the entire time. It is not just the special effects, but the way Howard builds layer upon layer beneath, never allowing a single scene to operate in and of itself but to contain a depth of complexity.
I’ve always enjoyed Apollo 13, but after this viewing, I’m considering it as one of the all time greatest action dramas. It is a movie that leaves you longing for what the rarest of movies provide - an entertaining and idealistic story that you leaves you wired up and proud in the end, inspired by what humanity can do and accomplish. So often it’s either the negative or hyper embellished action piece. Howard achieves both and creates one of popular cinema’s greatest pieces of the last thirty years.
BELOW: A scene that really pissed off Ebert
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