Don’t come into Apollo 13 expecting a deep, acutely insightful portrait of the inner lives of astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon are basically playing stock Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon characters, and this is probably a good thing for a big budget summer movie like this one. Real astronauts are invariably cool, hard-to-ruffle, by-the-book kinds of people. Sometimes it seems you could set their pants on fire and it would barely raise their pulse. This makes for successful space missions but not for a particularly exciting movie.
The three key actors do a fine job giving the characters the kind of emotional dimension they would never allow themselves to show during the real mission, but it bears keeping in mind that a lot of the conflict between the astronauts just didn’t happen. It’s all hyped-up movie stuff. Fortunately, this film is strong enough to bear the demands of show biz and still tell a true story with remarkable fidelity.
This film is, of course, Ron Howard’s somewhat fictionalized but technically exacting account of the “successful failure” otherwise known as the Apollo XIII lunar mission. Even though it relies on composite characters and the occasional dramatic license to tell its story, the film’s account of technical side is quite rigorous in its attention to detail. The interiors of the Apollo spacecraft are recreated down to the last screw and the Mission Control set is such a perfect duplicate that I’m sure the real Apollo personnel serving as technical advisers must have had a powerful feeling of deja vu when they walked through its doors.
In addition, Howard took the unprecedented extra step of actually filming some of the scenes inside the ill-fated spacecraft on board NASA’s notorious “vomit comet,” a 707 jet which simulates micro-gravity by flying in a parabolic arc. Thus, during scenes in which astronauts appear to be floating weightlessly through the cabin, they are floating weightlessly through the cabin. This one detail gives the movie a “cool factor” that few others can match.
This sense of reality gives a Apollo 13 a documentary-like feel to a lot of the scenes. It didn’t hurt that actor Tom Hanks is also a voracious space geek who soaks up NASA arcana like a sponge with a black hole inside it. It was surely no coincidence that Hanks and Apollo 13‘s producing team of Howard and Brian Grazer went on to produce the landmark HBO series From the Earth to the Moon.
The team on the ground is anchored by the always superb Ed Harris as Flight Director Gene Kranz, for whom failure is not an option. You really believe that this guy is the glue which holds the whole operation together.
While Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) did play a key role in the rescue effort after being scrubbed from the flight due to exposure to the measles, his role wasn’t quite as central or single-handed as depicted here. Again, like the others, Sinise is also playing a variation of the stock Sinise character more than the real person named Ken Mattingly, but like the other actors, he plays it well. His character’s obsessive “I-won’t-rest-until-they’re-home” quality gives the audience a real rooting interest in what he’s doing, even though he spends most of the second half of the movie lying flat on his back in darkened simulator.
Kathleen Quinlan does gives a very touching, human performance as Jim Lovell’s wife, Marilyn, although I think the movie kind of overdoes it with her premonitions of doom. The decision on the part of the filmmakers to focus primarily on the Lovell family’s ordeal was a good one. Spreading the screen time between the Lovell and Haise households more than it does would have diluted much of their impact.
Some of the space scenes, where the astronauts have to do carefully timed “burns” to get the spacecraft on course back to Earth, have an amped-up, artificially exciting quality to them. I realize that, for a summer movie, some artistic license is need for excitement’s sake but I still think a suspenseful scene could have been done while still using more restraint than they did in these scenes. This, however, is a fairly minor quibble.
With its first-rate cast, gleaming production values and meticulous attention to detail, Apollo 13 does justice to the courage and resourcefulness of those involved and still manages to be a exciting two hours at the movies.
And you, sir, are a steely-eyed missile man.