By Marc S. Sanders
What’s fascinating about Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13 is that I can hardly understand what anyone is talking about. I don’t know how they identify the problems of the doomed spacecraft. I don’t know how any of the folks at NASA resolved the issue to get the three astronauts, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise or Jack Swigert (Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon), back to Earth. What I do know is that William Broyles’ script, based upon the novel from Lovell with Jeffrey Kluger, allows for an ease of comprehension to know where one thing has started, where it leaves off and where it needs to go with each passing scene.
Forgive me, but when I watch NASA documentaries, I honestly get bored. It’s amazing what has been accomplished during the history of our space program. So much has been discovered but it’s only a fraction of what’s still left to be uncovered beyond our planet. The films and literature that account for the engineering of space craft and what is required to travel in space lose me though. Ron Howard puts everything in place with Apollo 13, however. It’s the emotions that stem from the actors. All I need to understand are the efforts each character serves to the ending that we all know. It’s not about telling us what these guys are educated with or what science mandates. Rather, it is about how these people respond to an unexpected and unfamiliar crisis.
On the ground in Houston, Texas Ed Harris portrays Gene Krantz. He’s a pretty quiet kind of character, but upon his entry into the film, just ahead of the anticipated launch of Apollo 13, he is gifted a pure white vest. Krantz wears this as his armor, prepared to take on any challenge including navigating a crew of three astronauts towards the moon. He is surrounded by a school of nerdy looking engineers and scientists, in their short sleeve shirts, skinny ties and black rimmed eyeglasses. They are all disbursed among an assortment of different departments. I think one specified simply in human waste disposal aboard the ship. Yeah, there’s a guy there making sure the urine is dispensed properly. Again, I couldn’t tell what specialty each man is designed for, but they’re the experts. Harris simply tells his men what needs to be done by drawing two circles on a chalkboard; one is the moon, the other is Earth. When a frightening malfunction occurs aboard the rocket, Harris explains that his men now need to get the ship back to Earth by drawing a line between the solar locales. He doesn’t know how it can be done, but like a football coach he demands his team find a way.
On board Apollo 13, the three astronauts are crammed in what is left of their ship, marooned to float through space. The interior gets extremely cold, exhaustion gradually overtakes them, and they are left with no choice but to power down whatever sources they have left as a means of preservation.
A third angle comes from the wives and families of the three men. More precisely, focus is drawn towards Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) with her family, including the children and Jim’s elderly mother watching the television with anticipation for ongoing developments while the media waits outside their doorstep. The first act of the picture offers the anxiety that Jim’s wife has with this upcoming mission. There is the standard nightmare scene. Acknowledgement of the unlucky number thirteen. Marilyn loses her wedding ring down the shower drain (something that actually happened). Ironically, the Lovells’ eldest daughter seems to carry the same kind of apathy for her dad’s upcoming trip like the rest of the country. Jim may finally be having his dreams come true, to walk on the moon. However, the rest of the world is more concerned with the possibility of the Beatles breaking up or what else is on TV.
A side story is delivered by Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise). The poor guy was originally a part of Lovell’s three man crew, only to be sidelined at the last minute because of a suspected case of measles. When things go wrong for Apollo 13, he enters the flight simulator to diagnose the issue and find a resolution. He’s offered a flashlight but rejects it because the guys in space don’t have that tool. He specifically tells his men not to give him anything that they don’t have up there, and he refuses to take a break either. If they don’t get a chance to rest, then neither does he. This mantra carries over to the other guys working diligently to keep the astronauts alive and get them home.
Apollo 13 is not a how to picture. Rather, it is a film that focuses on response.
Ron Howard offers amazing shots of the rocket and footage in space. The launch is extremely exciting as shrapnel sheds off the craft during its fiery liftoff. Then other parts disengage after it leaves the Earth’s atmosphere. The interior looks extremely claustrophobic, but the actors look comfortable within the floating zero gravity confines. Hanks, Paxton and Bacon have great chemistry together whether they are kidding one another about vomiting in space or bickering with each other while caught up in the problem at hand.
The base of NASA is alive with hustle and bustle. Not one extra looks like they are sitting around. They all know what monitor to look at or which teammate to lean over as they desperately discuss what needs to be accounted for. There’s a great moment that is explained to the audience as if they are a four year old. A man in charge throws a pile of junk onto a boardroom table and says they need to build something with nothing but what’s on this table to absolve the problem the astronauts are having with carbon dioxide poisoning. A few scenes later, we see the junky device that’s been rudimentarily assembled. Who knows what it does? All I need to know is that it works.
I did take one issue with Apollo 13. To heighten the dramatics, sound is provided as the ship comes apart. Even I know that sound does not travel through space. I forgive it when I’m watching fantasies like Star Wars or Superman. However, this film recaps a real-life event and during those moments, as startling as they may be, I could not help but think about the dramatic clanging and crashing penetrating my sound system. Apollo 13 draws from a well-known case, but it still resorts to cinematic tropes to hold my attention. I wonder if the picture would have worked had it remained faithful to basic scientific fact through and through. It’s not a terrible offense. It’s forgivable. Though it got me thinking. Heck, it obviously never bothered the masses because the film was awarded the Oscar for Best Sound Design.
Ron Howard’s film is a magnificent experience, full of outstanding footage. It relies on actors who depend on the emotions of the scenario to narrate the story. Recently, I watched the film Tár with Cate Blanchett. In that film, the mechanics of orchestral music and conducting are endlessly discussed. It’s like listening to a foreign language at times while trying to keep up. Howard’s film could have taken that approach and bored me to tears with a lot of technical jargon from engineers and scientists. Instead, Apollo 13 succeeds by only presenting the basics of the issues at hand. I couldn’t name one specific part on the engine of my car, but I know it powers the vehicle, allowing it to go from point A to point B. The army of NASA folks declare this thing has never done that before or it must be crazy to consider because that has never been attempted. I can count on the players of Apollo 13 to know what they’re doing. They are aware of the risks that need to be taken and know what’s at stake. I don’t need to see their diplomas to trust their concern or computations.
Like other films where known historical events are depicted, Apollo 13 maintains its suspense even if you already know the ending. The aborted mission to the moon became known as “The Successful Failure.” It’s refreshing to see how this proud moment all played out. For fleeting window in time America, actually most of the world, seemed to hold a unified care for three men trying to outlast a doomed, desperate and impossible situation.
Apollo 13 is a triumph.