Apollo 13: To the Edge and Back

For all the historic magnitude of the first-men-on-the-moon Apollo 11 flight, it can't match the stomach-churning drama of the bad-luck Apollo 13 mission. Packed with near-death disasters and heroic performances, the story provides plenty of grist for this compelling, inspiring docu. Even with some annoying omissions, "Apollo 13: To the Edge and Back" threatens to steal thunder from the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight.

With:
Narrator: Will Lyman.

For all the historic magnitude of the first-men-on-the-moon Apollo 11 flight, it can’t match the stomach-churning drama of the bad-luck Apollo 13 mission. Packed with near-death disasters and heroic performances, the story provides plenty of grist for this compelling, inspiring docu. Even with some annoying omissions, “Apollo 13: To the Edge and Back” threatens to steal thunder from the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight.

So powerful is the Apollo 13 story, it’s the subject of an upcoming feature film, starring Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon, and directed by Ron Howard for Imagine Entertainment. That film will have to work hard to match the impact of this docu.

In case you missed it the first time, James Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert took off on April 11, 1970, for the third trip to the lunar surface.

But two days later — April 13 — when the ship was some 200,000 miles from Earth, cracked wires in a liquid oxygen tank created a spark that set off an explosion. In an instant, the astronauts lost their air, water and electricity, and the spaceship was still hurtling toward the moon.

Using interviews with Lovell and Haise, as well as officials at mission control in Houston, “Apollo 13” spells out the challenge facing the astronauts and the split-second solutions the engineers created on the ground .

This involved moving the three astronauts into the lunar landing module, which was attached to the nose of the capsule. It had just enough power to push the capsule back to Earth, and just enough oxygen to last the journey home. Food and electrical power for essentials like heat — it’s cold in space — were in extremely short supply.

Fortunately for this docu, the shutdown of all non-essential equipment to save electricity didn’t include the omnipresent cameras. Virtually every part of the mission — in the capsule as well as at mission control — is captured on film. This footage is supplemented by useful computer simulations.

Will Lyman offers spare, informative narration, and composer Sheldon Mirowitz’s score is appropriately haunting and ominous. Writers/directors/producers Noel Buckner and Rob Whittlesey do a fine job keeping all the elements in place.

Best of all, though, are the interviews with people who were there. Lovell, in particular, shines as a cool yet extremely likable witness. There’s none of the bland, robotic quality of so many other astronauts. He’s appealing, warm and genuine (and it makes perfect sense that Hanks will play him in the feature film).

The other, surprising star to emerge from this film is former Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space. With high humor and classic Russian exuberance, he offers a warm view of the troubles his counterparts were experiencing.

For all that “Apollo 13” does well, it’s too bad that the end of the docu feels so rushed. The pic concludes almost at the moment when the spacecraft miraculously splashed down in near-perfect shape. There’s no reflection, no indication that any detailed investigation was launched, not even a hint that Swigert has been dead for more than a decade. But that hardly detracts from the emotional impact of this gripping tale of true heroism. In an age of fallen heroes and a misguided NASA, “Apollo 13” is a welcome reminder of when we knew how to do things right, even when everything went wrong.

Apollo 13: To the Edge and Back

Wed. (20), 9-10:30 p.m., PBS

Production: A WGBH Boston co-production with TV Asahi (Japan) and Central Television (U.K.). Executive producer, Zvi Dor-Ner; producers/directors/writers, Noel Buckner, Rob Whittlesey.

Crew: Camera, Tom Taylor; online editors, Mark Steele, Dan Lesiw, Jim Deering; animation, Keith Sylvester, John Cook, Kim Baumann Larsen; sound, Mack Melson, Jack Morris, David Mathew; music, Sheldon Mirowitz. 90 MIN.

Cast: Narrator: Will Lyman.

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