Back in the summer of 1995, there was one movie trailer whose title confused me. No, it wasn’t like how Tim Burton thought the title to Batman Forever sounded confusing. The movie in question was Apollo 13. My first thought when I saw the commercial was to wonder about Apollo 1-12, and if I was missing part of a series. Perhaps I should be excused for such an error in my thought process. I was 10 year old at the time, and between a summer of sequels like Batman Forever and Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls, and my beloved Star Wars films starting with a film labeled “Episode IV”, it would certainly look like it was part of a film series.
However when I saw the movie what I got was so much more than just another installment in a franchise. As it would happen, while I missed it in theaters, my dad had a VHS copy under the Christmas tree for me a few months later. I popped the tape in the VCR, and from the moment the stirring, patriotic main theme played over the Universal Studios logo to the nail biting conclusion of the splashdown it became an instant favorite.
One of the big reasons of this was because it was not just a science fiction film. I love science fiction, as anyone who knows me can attest. Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, The Forbidden Planet, Interstellar, Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey, if it’s set in space, I’m going to usually love it. However, all these stories listed are fictional. As I popped the video cassette into the VCR, I’d listen as my dad would recall his own memories from back in 1971 when he was 11 years old and the story of Apollo 13 was a current event in the news for him.
It’s one thing to imagine a star ship “boldly going where no man has gone before” or an intergalactic war between the forces of good and evil set in a “galaxy far, far away.”It’s another to tell a real story set in the same vast and deep expanse of space that really happened. Apollo 13 had one thing in common with the other outer-space adventures I enjoyed; and that was the high-stakes human drama.
Apollo 13 is not a documentary, which means that some minor dramatic licensing was taken to make the story more entertaining on screen, but it nonetheless sticks to the facts. A majority of the dialogue was taken directly from the transcripts from the mission. Even moments critics described as cheesy and forced, like Jim Lovell’s wife Marilyn losing her wedding ring in the shower just before the launch really happened.
Despite any dramatic licensing taken, Apollo 13 is one of the most accurate depictions of space travel ever captured on film. Leave it to director Ron Howard to bring the story to life and craft a film that is 100% grade-A All-American. The essence of the American dream is the idea of exploring new frontiers, pushing past the boundaries of the outer limits, over-coming great odds, and the virtues of courage under fire, hard-work, determination, faith and family all of which are present in this story that is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit.
Apollo 11 may have been the crowning achievement of the space race, but as Gene Kranz says towards the end of the movie, Apollo 13 was their finest hour, when all their training, skills, and intelligence are put to the test, hence why it was chosen for a film. The film begins with the tragic fire on Apollo 1 that claimed the lives of Astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee and then jumps to the triumph of the Apollo 11 moon landing when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on an alien world. Already we see that in space travel there is tragedy as well as triumph, and we are reminded that anything can and will happen.
However, it doesn’t take long for the American public to grow complacent with space launches thinking them routine. A PR guy from NASA even says that one of the networks bumped their launch as the last mission made going to the moon look like as exciting as a trip to Pittsburg. However when something goes terribly wrong, the world stops and takes notice. Lives are at stake and seconds count as the routine mission becomes a harrowing journey home.
These real American heroes Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert are brought to the big screen by Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon. While Hanks plays the mission commander Jim Lovell, it is impossible to single out his performance as better then Paxton’s Fred Haise or Bacon’s Jack Swigert. In order to be the crew of Apollo 13, they had to be an ensemble, and not one lead actor with two supporting players.
Balancing out the story of the crew in space is the Earth bound stories of the Lovell family and the struggle Jim’s heroic wife Marilyn faces to put on a brave face for the public while trying to help her family through the ordeal . Marilyn is more than just the glue holding her family together through this ordeal and shows that while astronauts like her husband were certainly heroes, their wives were just as strong and heroic as they.
We also see behind the scenes at NASA as flight director Gene Kranz, played by Ed Harris helps the ground crew work the problem to bring the crew home. It is Kranz who tries to keep the ground crew on task and refuses to give into dire predictions of their fate, telling them,
“Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things any worse by guessing... We’ve never lost an American in space, we’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch. Failure is not an option!”
working the problem is astronaut Ken Mattingly, played by Gary Sinise who had starred in Forrest Gump with Hanks. Ken had been bumped from the mission due to a health scare but it’s his training and familiarity with the crew and the mission that prove invaluable to helping the crew get home.
The movie also used plenty of practical effects, or at least as much as you can for a movie set in space . Along with using a gimble system when the ship needs to shake and shimy, all the scenes set inside the space craft were filmed using a training plane that NASA uses to help simulate weightlessness. When a character gets motion sick, he’s really suffering from motion sickness. In fact, Apollo 13 was one of the first Hollywood films to use NASA facilities and equipment, something not done until Michael Bay’s Armageddon.
It’s very rare to talk about a film being snubbed at the Oscars for a technical award like “Best Visual Effects” but Apollo 13 is the rare expectation. It was one of two nominees along with the movie Babe. While the effects that made the animals in Babe talk were good, Apollo 13 was something special. Ron Howard resisted the urge to use stock footage, remembering how jarring it was in episodes of I Dream of Jeannie or the movie The Right Stuff and wanted something different. Under his guidance the special effects teams recreated the entire launch sequence. They did such a good job with each of their shots, that when they showed it to Buzz Aldrin, he asked what vault they found the footage in.
Special mention needs to be made of the late James Horner’s score. Horner, who had worked on two of the Star Trek films, the Alien franchise, Battle Beyond the Stars, and collaborated with Howard on the movie Cocoon was told by Howard not to make it sound like a sci-fi film and instead try for something more realistic. To that end he composed one of the most stirring and patriotic film scores ever composed. His “Main Titles” give the somber, militaristic feeling, almost like “Taps”, whilst his theme for “The Launch” has an almost hymn like feel, capturing the spiritual aspect of this moment as the Apollo astronauts, “ slip past the surly bonds of earth…and touched the face of God” as John Gillsippie McGee once wrote.
Later on, “Darkside of the Moon” is filled with a sense of longing in as the Apollo astronauts are forced to turn around and abandon their dream of walking on the moon with a hint of grandeur as they see their home world from Earth. Towards the end the simple beats pulse as the family of the crew during “Re-entry and Splashdown” as the people at mission control and in fact the whole world awaits their fate, only heightens the nail biting drama at the end. This leads to a triumphant swell as they splash down in the sea and return home safely. Adding to the musical tapestry was a good selection of classic rock songs that were popular during the late 60’s and early 70’s when the film is set that help maintain the film’s authenticity.
As a kid Star Wars may have told me an exciting fantasy epic set in outer space, and Star Trek may have painted a utopian view of where space travel could take us, but it was Apollo 13 that showed me the dangers that a normal person whose name was not Luke Skywalker or James T. Kirk could face in space. Was there excitement to be had, and knowledge to be gained? Certainly. But it came at a great price.
If asked what one of my favorite movies was, I will always tell you Apollo 13. It’s big, epic and exciting, and yet it is based on real events. That does not ever once diminish how intense some of the moments in this movie are. You know the ending but the cast and the director do such a great job of pulling you into their world and into the story that you forget the ending, like all good storytellers should.
This year marks not only 20 years since the movie was released, but 45 years since the Apollo 13 mission. The movie has become a treasured classic and a lasting tribute to the heroism and bravery of the pioneers of the Apollo Age of space travel. Apollo 13 not only inspired me as a writer but it also ignited my life-long love for the whole history of the Apollo project, leading me to read every book I could on the subject and even purchase Tom Hanks’ phenomenal mini-series From The Earth to the Moon that chronicled the whole Apollo project. As the credits role to this day I can’t help but do as Jim Lovell says in the ending monologue,
“I look up at the moon and wonder when will we be going back and who will that be.”
Photo Credit: 1995 Universal Studios/ Imagine Entertainment