For those too young to recall the tragic events of November 22, 1963 [the assassination of JFK], one of the most stark and enduring images of a lifetime came on a frigid afternoon in January 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up while skyrocketing heavenward. By that time, shuttle flights had become routine, and few gave much thought to the possibility of something going wrong. After the accident, NASA was forced to re-evaluate its plans while everyone who had watched considered their own mortality. Not since April of 1970 and Apollo 13 had the United States' space program encountered this kind of disaster -- except in that case, no lives were lost.
The Apollo program was first announced in 1961. The climax came on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped out of Apollo 11's lunar module and issued his famous quote. Nine months later, with astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) aboard, Apollo 13 left the launch pad. Since moon shots were now regarded as commonplace, none of the three networks chose to air Lovell's first broadcast to Earth, preferring instead the likes of I Dream of Jeannie (which, ironically, featured a strong fictional image of NASA). However, when an explosion left the crew with a dwindling oxygen supply and failing power, television took notice, as did the entire world. This is the story told by Ron Howard (Parenthood, Far and Away) in Apollo 13, his best movie to date.
Perhaps the most impressive feat of this film is sustaining white-knuckle tension even though the chain of events is well-known. The conclusion of the mission is a matter of recent historical record, yet recalling how it ends does nothing to lessen the excitement or dampen the emotional impact of several key moments. Such deft film making is a prime reason why Apollo 13 is an unqualified success.
It's not the only reason, however. During the 140-minute running time, we are essentially given three stories: the astronauts' struggle to stay alive, the controlled chaos at NASA as experts are forced to come up with unexpected solutions, and the trauma faced by the families of the men whose lives are in danger. With inserts of news footage from the time (much of which features Walter Cronkite), Apollo 13 attains a level of verisimilitude few current features can match.
Scientifically, Apollo 13 is accurate, even though at times things seem more like science fiction. Additionally, with a script that relies on Lovell's account, this movie takes fewer liberties with the facts than many other productions based on true events. Apollo 13 has tremendous appeal because the story is only 25 years removed from the nightly news, and many of the details still linger.
The effective, understated special effects never upstage any of the fine performances. All three actors playing the astronauts -- Hanks, Paxton, and Bacon -- have gotten under their characters' skins. Ed Harris exudes a palpable intensity in a supporting performance as Mission Controller Gene Kranz, the coordinator of the teamwork that goes into saving the space craft. Gary Sinise, reunited here with Forrest Gump co-star Tom Hanks, plays Ken Mattingly, the member of Lovell's team who, after being refused medical clearance to fly, plays a crucial role in the rescue.
Howard has a firm grasp on what he's attempting. The little details are all right. Among its many successes, Apollo 13 offers the simple wonder of taking the audience to a strange place. Many movies these days are content to tell a story mechanically, without actually transporting the viewer somewhere else. Not so here. We are with Lovell, Haise, and Swigert through every harrowing mile of their journey, and when Lovell dreams of setting foot on the moon, we understand his loss.
The villain here is the vastness of space -- an antagonist that refuses direct confrontation. There isn't a traditional bad guy to be found, but Apollo 13 needs no such useless embellishment. The basic human drama of the situation raises the heartbeat far more than all the explosions of Die Hard with a Vengeance or the contrived submarine warfare of Crimson Tide. Reality has a taste the likes of which fiction can rarely match. Those who recall that week in April 1970 will enjoy seeing the full story unfold; those who are too young to remember will get a feeling not only of what the individuals endured, but how the country as a whole reacted. While the events of this motion picture may depict NASA's finest hour, the release of Apollo 13 represents Ron Howard's.
Labels: drama, history
Tomatometer (critics=95, viewers=86)