"HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM."
There was a time when the whole world looked to the skies in the spirit of adventure and hope, not for reasons of religion, but because mankind had shaken off the bonds of Earth and travelled beyond the limits of our atmosphere – space exploration had begun. Though this spawned the rather paranoia-tainted Space Race between the US and Russia, both trying to conquer the outer limits first, the advances of humanity were of greater import. In 1969, this led to one of the truly great achievements of the 20th Century (or any Century) as the crew of Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon. There, astronaut Neil Armstrong produced one of the most famous quotes in history: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” In 1970, the world would receive another now famous quote from another Apollo space mission: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
Less than a year after man first walked on the Moon, Apollo 13 was sent back on another lunar-landing mission. However, before the craft even got there, a catastrophic technical malfunction effectively crippled them. Stranded hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth, the Apollo 13 flight crew, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and the NASA technicians fight desperately to bring the craft back to life and bring the astronauts home safely.
Before we even begin to look at the mission at the heart of this story, we are told of a previous mission that went horribly wrong, Apollo 1, which killed its three crew members. The point is being made very clearly – tragedy can happen at anytime, even to those who prepare for it. If there’s one thing that the film of Apollo 13 wants to do in the first forty-five minutes or so, it’s build up a sense of foreboding, a sense of sinister premonition, a sense that this mission was doomed from the start. It’s something that some of the superstitious folk among us have often said about the Apollo 13 mission itself. There’s the fact that it was the 13th mission in the Apollo program, that it launched at 19:13pm (13:13 by North American Central Standard Time), that the rupture of the oxygen tanks occurred on the 13th of April (again, Central Standard Time), that there was a change in the crew a week before blast-off. The film itself builds on this by highlighting other things, too. Crew Commander Lovell’s wife lost her wedding ring down the shower drain before the launch date. Lovell’s car had been having some technical difficulties recently and stalling without warning. These ominous concerns were not lost on the crew, who joked about breaking mirrors and black cats and walking under ladders in preparation for the flight. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a superstitious person or not (I’m certainly not), because the film does makes its point that some of these characters may be somewhat superstitious themselves, even if it’s merely a case of not wanting to tempt fate. For example, Gene Kranz, the no-nonsense flight director, maintains a simple ritual of wearing a crisp white waistcoat with mission patch on the lapel for the duration of the assignment.
Although these nods towards less rational sensibilities are important, they take up only a little bit of time in the build up to the film’s central crisis. Much more attention is paid towards the establishment of the characters who must deal with it when it comes. Working from a script by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, director Ron Howard develops a fine array of individuals for us to follow along this perilous journey. Jim Lovell was part of the Apollo 8 mission, the first to orbit the moon, though never got a chance to actually walk on its surface. We feel his awe of such a feat, his sense of mild disappointment that he got so close before without touching it, his humble joy at finally being given the chance to achieve his goal. His wife, Marilyn, is so loving and supportive of her husband and his dreams. She’s a veteran of watching her husband go off into space, so she also remains a firm support for other wives who are new to the whole experience, although she is still uneasy about it herself. Fred Haise is a family man and southern country boy, a fun guy of simple tastes, a little rough around the edges, but a fine pilot. Ken Mattingly is a straight arrow and a driven perfectionist, always pushing himself to get it right. Jack Swigert is a ladies man, a slight outsider as the late addition to the crew, and also with great flight skills and instinct. Gene Kranz is a man who commands respect, but through an understated resolve and calm under pressure. The film builds these characters, and their families (or lack of), so well that when things start to go wrong, you are completely invested and feel genuinely taken by their plight. As things progress, the characters are treated with a great dignity and respect, their actions developed with tight and utterly believable motivations. Even better is that no one is ever given to the overly dramatic bouts of hysteria, with someone eventually cracking up, screaming and crying that they don’t want to die up here. It’s made very clear that these people are who they are and where they are precisely because of their heroic levels of self-control, that they know their best chance to survive is to remain composed and work together. We should all be so controlled as these people.
Howard is also well aware that the greatest dramatic draw is the crisis itself. Of course, how could it not be? A less assured director would have perhaps tried to cram in more subplots and storylines underneath the main one in order to add even greater weight and complexity to the piece. It speaks greatly that Howard did not do such a thing. The film is complex enough, built out of a tight sense the technical issues that must be tackled on Earth, and the delicate relationship of the three men on board the ship. The level of technical detail itself is enough to create a heavy sense of realism, making it all so absorbing. The script is full of technical jargon and astro-speak, but it never overwhelms the audience, still remaining somehow accessible, even if just in a basic sense. It’s from this kind of realism and adherence to detail that we get some moments of drama and concern in the film. When the crew have to turn off most of their equipment in the hope of conserving battery life and fuel, the possibility for the condensation build-up to short out the electrical instruments becomes another concern to deal with. It’s really a case of one thing leading to another, and it makes for really great drama.
And it’s not even just in the technical side of things that there’s a great sense of detail. The period is evoked so well, with the fashions, the music, the cars. Lovell’s eldest daughter initially doesn’t want to watch her father’s flight broadcasts (all before the disaster strikes, of course) because she’s so upset that The Beatles have broken up. That actually happened, the day before Apollo 13 launched. It’s the small details throughout the film that make it all so immersive and wonderful to watch.
The cast do a superb job throughout. Tom Hanks is able to bring his typical Everyman-ness to Lovell, but yet still make him someone of great poise and character. Ed Harris’ Gene Kranz is a performance of superb control and reserve, delivering lines like “Failure is not an option” with great solid conviction. Kathleen Quinlan also gives a great show, steering clear of the weepy astronaut’s wife thing, showing a core of strength and restraint. She’s not above letting the tears come, but she knows better than to let them take over. Paxton, Bacon and Sinise provide great support, too.
Apollo 13 is a genuinely thrilling, tense and really rather emotional experience, which remains unaffected by whether or not you know how it all turns out. The direction is firmly controlled and incredibly well detailed, with solid performances from everyone involved. It’s often overlooked or forgotten about today, but this is an exhilarating experience and a fine tribute to those involved in a great pursuit of exploration.