"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Apollo 13



20 years ago, in the summer of 1995, director Ron Howard (GUNG HO) looked back another 25 years before that to the year 1970.

What does 1970 mean to you? For mathematical reasons I have to think of it as the beginning of the decade of funk, of soul power, of blaxploitation and disco. The decade of Scorsese and Copolla and DePalma, and JAWS and STAR WARS. But really it’s more like a bridge from the ’60s. Sly and the Family Stone were still performing, Bruce Lee was on the rise, James Brown put out “Funky Drummer,” “Brother Rapp” “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.” It was the beginning of PBS, Black Sabbath, Doonsebury and DJ Quik (who was born), but it was the end of the Beatles (who broke up, but released Let It Be) Janis Joplin (who went on the Festival Express, but died) and Jimi (who played the Isle of Wight Festival, but died). It was the year after Woodstock and the war was still going. It was the invasion of Cambodia abroad and the Kent State shootings at home. Basically it was a bubble of time floating in the middle of war and protest and multiple cultural revolutions.

Ever the square, Howard (who had spent part of his 1970 guest starring in a Lassie two-parter) made a period piece that’s a worshipful tribute to people completely removed from all of that. The characters in APOLLO 13 are almost entirely white, upper middle class, from academic backgrounds, or military, but lucky enough to be in the space program now instead of dropping bombs. The men have crew cuts or comb-overs, they wear glasses and ties, unless they’re astronauts. The hippest thing they do is drive a Corvette. The wives stay at home worrying about them while watching TV or listening to the radio. The only sign of a counterculture is in a daughter’s hippie Halloween costume, which Mom forbids her to leave the house in.

The astronauts’ lives depend on high grade technology, but otherwise they might as well live in 1960, or even earlier. Their day has passed, it seems like, even when it comes to their job. The rest of the world has moved beyond moon landings. To their shock, their rocket launch isn’t even broadcast on TV.

mp_apollo13The story centers on Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), experienced space traveler excited to bust his moonwalk-cherry when he gets bumped up to the Apollo 13 mission. He and Bill Paxton and Gary Sinise have been training their asses off in the simulator. This is dangerous shit, and the bosses aren’t sure they’re ready. There’s some real drama when Sinise isn’t allowed to go (they think he’s getting measles) and they have to replace him with Kevin Bacon, breaking up the team. Man, that must be rough being the new guy in a tiny space capsule. Worse than sharing a studio apartment with two guys you just met who grew up together.

But all goes well… until it doesn’t. A thing explodes (some kind of pipe or space machine part or whatever) and the mission is fucked. They definitely “lost the moon,” they can’t land, and they gotta figure out if it’s even possible to get back to Earth, which seems unlikely. As far as we see they don’t consider going out in a blaze of moon glory, though. They’re gonna give going home the old college try.

But first they gotta deal with moonus interuptus. They pass by it and stare mournfully. They got it even worse than poor, depressed Sinise, locked alone in his gloomy apartment drinking away his moonlessness. They got so close they could smell the green cheese.

Of course there is a certain unintentional humor in watching this in 1995, since we now know that the moon landing was a hoax and the moon-non-landing was also a hoax where they really did land on the moon. I am totally joking about both of those things and I hope no one is just skimming. It feels like a pretty old fashioned movie, but you can’t really understate the importance of the weightlessness in this. They shot the floating-around scenes in short bursts on a special plane that can create about 23 seconds of zero gravity (real astronauts use it for training). It gives them an impressive level of credibility.

I should also mention the score by James Horner, who of course died tragically young last week. This is actually the third movie of my Summer of 1995 retrospective that he scored, because he also did BRAVEHEART and CASPER. He definitely deserves credit for this one because it’s one of those scores that makes you feel like you’re at some military ceremony and should be standing up straight with your hand over your heart. Very appropriate for the material. And I like how the end credits break down the main theme with Annie Lennox singing it instead of a trumpet. They’re safe at home at that point, so you can loosen up a little.

This is a movie all about problem solving. How do we conserve energy and oxygen? How do we not overload on the carbon dioxide we’re emitting? If we can have enough power for re-entry, how do we even steer the fuckin thing? The astronauts have to keep their cool, not crack up, not flip out on each other, not freeze to death, get some sleep. They’re sharp guys. But the real heroes are down on Earth in mission control figuring out creative ways to solve all these problems. Ed Harris is in charge, a no-bullshit leader scaring everybody on task, and if I’m ever in need of rescuing I want this guy in charge. Either the character, or the actual Ed Harris.

But he’s mostly asking the questions. The answers are coming from the nerds who work for him, the engineers and what not (including, I noticed, Christian Clemenson, the guy who played Socrates Poole on The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.). They stew and debate and worry and come up with instructions for turning off most of the equipment, shifting the ballast, whatever. Their finest hour is when a bunch of them sit at a table with duplicates of the things the astronauts have on board and have to McGyver an adapter for a carbon dioxide filter made partly out of a plastic bag, the torn off cover of the mission manual and (of course) some duct tape. And then they have to talk the crew through reproducing it on their end.

Howard also milks the tension of the situation by frequently showing the astronaut’s families at home, huddling with loved ones on a constant vigil, friends and neighbors looking after them. He does it just the right amount to be heart-wrenching and not take away from the suspenseful science action going on at headquarters.

(Random note: one of the Lovell kids is played by Miko Hughes, aka the terrifying toddler zombie Gage in PET SEMATARY, and Heather Langenkamp’s Freddy-possessed son in WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE.)

Most of this drama is really effective. A rare misstep is in the scene where Lovell gets stressed out and tears off the wires that monitor his bodily functions. For some reason Howard plays it as a stick-it-to-the-man act of rebellion. The flight doctor panics when all the readings disappear from his screens, and Ed Harris and everybody laugh at him, like “Good for them, that’s showin ‘im!” Yeah, fuck that doctor for trying to do his job and use his expertise to try to keep the astronauts alive. What a stick in the mud!

Another thing that’s a little weird is that Kathleen Quinlan gives such a compelling performance as the wife left at home, trying not to give up hope, trying to comfort her children and elderly mother-in-law while her life is plummeting down a hole and the press are on her lawn wanting to interview her about it… but then we never see them reunited. There’s even a whole thing about her fear causing her to want to skip the launch, but then she shows up at the last minute. I know it’s for practical reasons – she couldn’t be there, they splashed down southwest of American Samoa, and they wanted to end with them just back to earth, not skip forward to later. But it feels odd that we don’t get to see that reunion hug.

Oh well. I have to admit that the part where she hears him over the radio saying he’s safe made me tear up. Thanks alot, Ron Howard.

One really satisfying subplot is the one about Sinise being dug up from the rock he crawled under to run scenarios on the simulator until they figure out a sequence that can conserve enough energy to make it back. He immediately comes alive, leaping from rock bottom to top form. He starts the day as the loser who didn’t get to go to space and ends it having done something much more important.

What is the importance of going to the moon? In what ways have the studies of moonrocks and shit benefited humanity? I don’t know. I don’t have that awe and automatic patriotism boner that alot of people have for astronauts. It’s cool, but I don’t really get it. That’s kind of what I like about this movie, though. It’s not about trying to get to the moon, it’s about trying to get back. An unexpected disaster strikes, and a team of smart people tough it out and don’t give up and work together to come up with a solution. It’s a very optimistic story to tell. It says we can do anything if we put our minds and our best and brightest to it. Maybe not solve the problem of Vietnam War, but other stuff we can do.


Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. continued an association with Tom Hanks, writing CASTAWAY and THE POLAR EXPRESS. (He also did ENTRAPMENT, the shitty Tim Burton version of PLANET OF THE APES, UNFAITHFUL, JARHEAD and FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS). His co-writer Al Reinert also contributed to the valley of the uncanny with FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN.

Seven years later Ron Howard won best director and best picture Oscars for A BEAUTIFUL MIND, which also got a best adapted screenplay for fellow Summer of ’95er Akiva Goldsman (BATMAN FOREVER).

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 30th, 2015 at 7:39 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

13 Responses to “Apollo 13”

  1. i have really vivid memories of seeing this with my dad when i was 14 at a united artists theater somewhere in the desert in nevada or arizona. i’m also pretty sure my mom was watching pocahontas with my little sisters at the same time…

  2. I’m of the opinion this movie is the pure distilled quintessence of what big-budget, mainstream studio prestige filmmaking should be: a compelling but limited story, told potently but not especially stylishly, jam-packed with great actors, featuring some impressive setpieces but getting most of its mileage out of the drama and acting. Pandering in a lot of ways, but inarguable entertaining, and inarguably TRYING to entertain first and foremost. When this came out I thought of it as kinda unhip –which of course it was and still is– but compared to the cobbled-together, plastic crapola that passes for big mainstream filmmaking today, this seems like high art.

    It was sort of old-fashioned even at the time, but now it almost seems like a relic. When was the last time you saw a major, big-budget summer release which puts this much emphasis on the actual human drama? I mean, it’s not exactly INTERIORS or something, but the focus is clearly much more on the characters than the big setpieces. That seems almost unimaginable for a big-budget summer movie today.

  3. So I have a weirdly relevant story:
    I worked part time driving a shuttle last year, and a woman got on one day and started telling me about her dad. It turns out he was/is the real life medical specialist who monitored the astronauts’ heart rates in every Apollo mission (not just the one where Ed Harris and company laughed at him, if that really happened). She said he got to be so good at his job, he could look at an astronaut’s heart rate and know what activity they were doing. But after the Challenger disaster, he went back home and packed up his roomful of NASA souvenirs, including signed photos from just about every astronaut ever. And then he didn’t talk about his job or what had happened for years. When Apollo 13 came out, his youngest child convinced him to go see the movie as a father son thing. They went back home together, and for the first time in his life, the son got to see all this amazing stuff that the father had kept in boxes in the attic since 1986. The sister, telling me this story, was there too. And she told me after they had gone through all the patches and photos and moon rocks, the father pulled out a piece of notebook paper with a bunch of cramped writing on it. It was the sheet of paper he had written on from the real life version of the scene in Apollo 13 where everyone back at mission control checks the figures by hand to see if they can get the astronauts home. He had kept his all that time.
    So yeah, for me that was unexpectedly more cinematic to hear about than to watch.

  4. My mom is a smart and kind woman, but she came home from seeing this in the theater and said “they changed the ending!” I was 14 so I knew about the history and had to go check it out. Same ending as what actually happened. I guess when Mom was a kid and watched this on TV she imagined the astronauts dying in a fireball and that kind of stuck with her.

    Anyways, I don’t get into much schmaltzy “prestige” pieces, but I love this movie.

  5. This film gets me every time. I normally don’t go in for the sentimental historical Oscar film, but there’s something about the Apollo missions that makes me misty eyed. I get genuinely nationalistic when it comes to our space program. Even WWII, “the good war,” involved us dropping nuclear weapons on civilians. But the Apollo mission speaks to the optimism of the mid-twentieth century, a time when nearly anything seemed possible. And as a liberal, I love the fact that a government agency achieved the impossible thanks to an incredibly high marginal tax rate. I think knowledge is important for its own sake, so the Apollo mission was an intrinsic good, but here’s list of some of the technology that came out of the program:


  6. I love this one too. Anytime it’s on TV, I’m bound to watch it and get caught up in it again like I did seeing it in the theater when it came out. Of what I saw theatrically, this and TOY STORY stand out as being the better end of having to sit through crap like the POWER RANGERS movie or WATERWORLD.

    I’m with Batty about our space program, it showed our strength in an utterly positive way. Needless to say THE RIGHT STUFF did a better job of showing all that warts and all, and is much more a snapshot of it’s time than APOLLO 13. The term “rock star” is utterly wasted now, and has been reduced to a buzzword. But even before The Beatles, these guys were rock stars, not even having gone to the moon but daring to is what captivated Americans so much.

    I do think Vern is right about the kind of comfortable distance the film keeps from the turmoil here at the time. It seemed to be accepted at the time, because America was doing relatively well at the time. No wars, in the middle of an economic boom, etc, etc. I don’t know, if it was released now, if it would have had the same impact, or that those elements being kept out would be seen as okay.

    That said, I think this might be Howard’s best. He’s been completely half and half with me, doing films I’ve either loved or haven’t bothered seeing. But he was definitely on an upswing here, doing what arguably might be one of his other best films THE PAPER. PARENTHOOD, A BEAUTIFUL MIND (though this should have been his Best Picture win IMO) and more recently RUSH have all favored well with me too.

  7. I saw this movie in theaters as a kid and I remember it blew my mind, unfortunately it’s kinda slipped through the cracks as far as re-watching it over the last 20 years goes and consequently I’ve forgotten most of it.

  8. Really great movie and I always loved how the nerdy mission control guys were the real heroes of the movie.

    Speaking of how the people of NASA seemed to live in an isolated bubble while all this turmoil of 1970 was surrounding them, the first time I had heard of Apollo 13 was a few years before the movie on The Wonder Years. In the episode(set in April during tax time) Kevin Arnold’s mother had lost the receipts and that didn’t tell his dad and that Kevin worried his dad would explode. He sees his mother lighting candles in church like she was worried her marriage was over when she tells his dad. At the end Kevin sees that they didn’t fight and are actually loving and calm as they go over the past year and what they paid for. His mom was actually praying for the Apollo 13 astronauts stranded in space.

  9. “What is the importance of going to the moon? ”

    As RBatty indicated, the space race was a great technological motivator. In order to get there we had to learn to make computers smart and small, etc. Basically the only thing other than exploration that gets that human innovative drive revving is of course War, and I think we can all agree that spending billions of dollars on space is way better than spending it annihilating people.

  10. I do like this movie and get swept up in the sentimentality of it, but I have a hard time getting sentimental about the good old days of the space program ever since learning about the Mercury 13. For those that don’t know, that was a group of women who underwent the same testing as the men back at the beginning of the space race, but they were summarily dismissed as candidates to become astronauts, despite testing just as well, and in some cases better, than the men.

  11. Really good point about this being one of the milder historical events of the same era to make a movie about. Not that it’s not worthy of a movie, but no one’s made those other movies yet.

  12. Just reading your review Vern made me tear up with the memories of how poignant I find this movie to be. What always gets me is the part where Hanks’ son hears there’s a problem and asks if the door got stuck, a call back to the beginning of the movie when Hanks is explaining how some astronauts died in a recent fire on the launchpad.

  13. Fred Haise says at some point in the movie that he could “eat the ass out of a dead rhinoceros”, which is not something he actually said but it was a line suggested by Gary Busey who visited the set. He says the same line in POINT BREAK.

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