The movie Apollo 13 turned out — surprise! — to be an excellent movie, a bit too long (at 2 hours 20 minutes — it probably could have been cut to an even 2 hours without losing much) but otherwise a marvelous film, an evocation of a time and place in which the U.S. was full of optimism, and the saying was, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we _____________ [fill in your favorite social cause]?” It seems ironic that, after two terrible, overrated movies in which Tom Hanks won Academy Awards for performances that were pure schtick (as everybody’s perfect PWA in Philadelphia and everybody’s perfect fal parsi in Forrest Gump — a thoroughly obnoxious Right-wing movie which I hated for the same reason Newt Gingrich loved it: because it portrayed the 1960’s “counterculture” as essentially evil and life-destroying), he’s finally made a film for which he deserves one: Hanks’ performance as astronaut Jim Lovell (who also wrote the book Lost Moon, on which Apollo 13 is based, and served as technical advisor for the film) is quiet, understated, multidimensional and naturalistic in the best Spencer Tracy tradition. He’s supported by a marvelous cast — including Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton as his fellow astronauts, and Gary Sinise as the crew member who was grounded at the last minute, and whose work in the flight simulator helps the Mission Control boys in Houston figure out how to get the Apollo 13 crew home safely. Ron Howard’s direction is the equal of Hanks’ performance — quiet and understated (in the kind of “heroic” story that would have prompted someone like Steven Spielberg to overdirect relentlessly — there are only a few “arch” shots, like the cut from the phallic scene of the moon rocket thrusting upward to a shot of Kathleen Quinlan as Lovell’s wife, watching it from the ground), redolent of the fascination with military ritual that made A Few Good Men so good, and the screenplay by William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert likewise allows the story to tell itself, with no embellishment.
The story itself is gripping, not only because it’s true but because it builds naturally to suspense points — once again, I’m reaching for the word “understated” and giving this film credit for the taste to trust its subject and its ability to sustain our interest without the kind of highlighting that mars so many films today (as if modern-day writers and directors don’t trust us to follow a story without yelling in our ear, “HEY! Watch this! This is IMPORTANT!”) — though it also seemed at times so reminiscent of the plot of the 1950 movie Destination Moon that one could almost use the two films (and the real Apollo 13 mission between them) as a case study in art imitating life imitating art. What’s interesting about this movie from a quarter-century reserve is how much Apollo 13 is bound up with my own recollections of the space program; I remember being as fascinated as anyone else with the early Mercury launches in 1961-62 (buying the books that came out about it — including one that actually turned out to be a science-fiction collection, which is where I first read, and totally missed the point of, Henry Kuttner’s story “The Iron Standard”), but by the time of the first moon landing in 1969 I was already a committed Leftie and was taking the P.C. point of view about the moon shots, which was that they were a hopeless waste of money and social energy that should be used to solve some of the pressing social needs of Earth. When Apollo 13 actually happened, I remember being relieved that the astronauts made it back safely, while at the same time taking an I-told-you-so attitude about an event that just seemed to underscore the sheer pointlessness of the whole exercise and the undesirability of continuing the missions (which did indeed stop after about two or three more launches the next year).
One aspect that had got to me about the moon landings was the massive weight of the support apparatus that was behind these people — all the rehearsals and simulations and instructions from Mission Control in Houston, to the point where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were little more than puppets, dancing on the surface of the moon to a tune called by long, invisible strings leading to their puppet masters in Houston. It seemed to me that the comparisons constantly being made by supporters of the space flights to Columbus and Lindbergh were beside the point — Columbus and Lindbergh were really out there, all alone without the long radiophonic umbilical cords connecting the astronauts to their “controllers” at NASA central. What comes through in Apollo 13 is that, once things started to go wrong and both astronauts and Mission Control people had to start improvising, using the spacecraft’s facilities in ways they were not intended for, they really did take on the aspects of heroism that had been built into the missions of Columbus and Lindbergh. In its quiet, understated way, the movie really dramatizes this point — that the people who seemed like NASA P.R. dummies (there’s a marvelous scene early in the film in which the astronauts are assembled for a photo shoot in front of a backdrop photo of the earth from space, just to boost NASA’s P.R. image and therefore the chances for continued funding of the space program) actually did have “the right stuff” in them, and it came through when the chips were down in ways it would never have done if their mission had gone flawlessly and they’d played around on the moon. (This is also underscored in the film when the TV networks — which refused to broadcast the video from the spacecraft when it was apparently headed to the moon with no difficulty — cover the story to death once the mission goes awry.) The movie led me to an admiration for those connected with NASA that I might never have felt otherwise.
Three days ago Charles and I ran a Blu-Ray edition of the 20th anniversary release of Apollo 13, a movie we’d seen back when it first hit home video on VHS tape (and, being the pack rat I am, I still have that tape!). I remember quite liking the film because it was a modern (well, 1990’s) movie that had the qualities I like in classic-era films: a strong story, well told, with actors projecting quiet dignity and strength and a director who had enough trust in the tale he was telling he didn’t feel a need to trick it up with visual fireworks or let the actors chew the scenery. Apollo 13 was based on a true story: the plight of what was supposed to be the third U.S. mission to the moon (the fact that between 1969 and 1973 the U.S. actually sent up seven rockets to land humans on the moon, six of which made it there, is one of the most bizarrely dated parts of this film, the Zeitgeist having changed so dramatically that the idea of the government, of all benighted institutions, could mobilize the human, economic and technological power to do something as big as put people on the moon and bring them back safely to earth seems as science-fictional as space travel itself, and today’s science-fiction audience is dominated by Libertarians who believe that if there’s ever going to be a manned — or should we say “personned” — space program again the inspiration and the funding are going to have to come from the private sector) which, due to an explosion on the side of the Service Module (the Apollo spacecraft was divided into Command, Service and Lunar Modules, the last of which was the only one that actually landed on the moon; it was originally called “Lunar Excursion Module” until someone at NASA apparently decided that sounded too silly and frivolous, but the acronym “LEM” remained the nickname of choice for the thing because it had a vowel and was therefore pronounceable) caused by a short-circuit built into it by a construction mistake two years before the mission (though we’re not told that until the narration by Tom Hanks as lead astronaut Jim Lovell at the very end), had to abandon a landing on the moon and it was touch-and-go whether the astronauts would come back at all. Ironically, this galvanized the attention of the media and a public that had become jaded at the whole idea of space travel — the video Lovell shoots aboard Apollo 13 before the catastrophe isn’t aired on any of the four U.S. TV networks then extant (when someone at NASA asks why not, he’s told, “You’ve made going to the moon seem about as exciting as going to Pittsburgh”) — the plight of Apollo 13 becomes a worldwide media sensation and just about everyone with access to a TV set is gripped by the story and follows it intensely. (This also explains why Hollywood made a movie called Apollo 13 and did not make Apollo 11, which was the mission on which Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans ever to set foot on the moon.)
This time around I liked the aspects of the movie I’d liked the first time around nearly 20 years ago: the quiet dignity of Ron Howard’s direction, his refusal to underline a story that didn’t need underlining — though at least part of the stoicism with which Lovell and the others aboard the doomed spacecraft was ingrained in their training (I still love the way critic Andrew Sarris put down the film 2001: A Space Odyssey because, among other things, he couldn’t believe the astronauts could be so emotionless as they were depicted in the film — and then he watched the real moon landing and noted how the real astronauts were just as matter-of-fact and emotionless as the ones in Kubrick’s film) — and the superb performances Howard got from his cast, including Hanks as Lovell, Bill Paxton as Fred Haise, Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert (a last-minute addition to the Apollo 13 crew after NASA’s flight doctors worried that the previous astronaut might get the measles and grounded him), Gary Sinise as Ed Mattingly (the astronaut who got scrubbed out of fear he’d get the measles, and who was instrumental in bringing the Apollo 13 crew back because he staffed the flight simulator in which the Mission Control people rehearsed the various maneuvers before they recommended them to the actual Apollo 13 astronauts), and Ed Harris dripping with authority as Gene Kranz, the on-duty head of Mission Control. I remember when the moon flights were taking place that they didn’t seem feats on the order of Christopher Columbus or Charles Lindbergh (the precedents that usually got cited) because they had an elaborate infrastructure that practiced, rehearsed and simulated the flights up the ying-yang — and what made the Apollo 13 mission so spectacular was precisely the sheer amount of improvisation they had to do, including using the Lunar Module as their main vehicle for flight back and abandoning the Command Module until they were just about to return to earth because it was the only part of the spacecraft capable of surviving the insane heat of re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. (Charles and I were recently at the Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park and got to see one of the actual Gemini capsules, and noticed how badly charred it was after re-entry even though its mission went through without a hitch.) Apollo 13 was the movie that added the phrases “Houston, we have a problem” and “Failure is not an option” to the language — and in a way those two lines really sum up the movie, the first being the understatement with which the astronauts addressed their outer-space dilemmas and the second the grim determination with which the people at Mission Control addressed the task of bringing them back.
Among the interesting bits of trivia about the movie on imdb.com are that Ron Howard regards this as the best of his films as a director (and deservedly so — of the ones I’ve seen only A Beautiful Mind even comes close) and that he insisted on shooting at least some of the scenes of the astronauts experiencing weightlessness in genuinely weightless conditions. He didn’t want to do wire-work (the usual way weightlessness is done on film these days); he used teeter-totters for some sequences but for a few scenes he actually got permission to film inside the KC-135, a NASA training plane that does heavy-duty parabolic dives and thereby allows them to subject would-be astronauts to weightless conditions — or at least a very close approximation of them — for about 20 to 23 seconds at a time without having to leave earth’s gravity and become weightless for real. (The sudden climbing and diving involved in flying or riding in this plane led to its being nicknamed the “Vomit Comet.”) Apollo 13 remains a great film, probably the best ever made about the actually existing (or formerly existing) space program (as opposed to purely science-fictional films like Woman on the Moon or 2001: A Space Odyssey), and I remember thinking that Tom Hanks had just won two Academy Awards for two terrible movies, Philadelphia and Forrest Gump (he was miscast in Philadelphia — I still think that would have been a better movie if Hanks and Denzel Washington had switched roles, but the character was meant to be an AIDS poster boy rather than a person, and in 1993 America’s AIDS poster boy couldn’t be Black — and Forrest Gump was a piece of Right-wing wish-fulfillment that damned the entire counterculture and the whole idea of intelligence; it’s no wonder Newt Gingrich liked it!), they weren’t about to give him a third Oscar in a row for the film for which he truly deserved it. I was also amused that an imdb.com message board poster denounced this as a racist and sexist movie because no African-Americans were characters and the only women were the astronauts’ wives and girlfriends — and someone else replied that in the U.S. space program in 1970 there were no Black or female astronauts (I still remember that I thought it was insanely overhyped when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983 — 20 years after the Soviet Union had sent up their first woman cosmonaut), and it’s silly to apply modern standards of political correctness to a film made in 1996 and set in 1970, in which (among other things that would seem hideous in a film set today!) everyone in Mission Control was smoking like chimneys!