If Bob Dole and other industry critics want to continue attacking Hollywood, they’d better not see “Apollo 13.” With its rah-rah, gung-ho, can-do attitude and cast full of good-looking young white men in buzz cuts, this engrossing account of the nation’s most perilous moon shot embodies what many people consider to be old-fashioned American virtues in a virtually pristine state. Sufficiently suspenseful despite its historically preordained happy ending,slightly overlong real-life thriller will appeal to mainstream audiences across the boards and land a commercial bull’s-eye for Universal.
Scarcely embellishing the story of how three astronauts barely avoided becoming the first Americans to die in outer space, director Ron Howard and his team walk a narrative line that’s almost as narrow as the course of the mission itself. Pic’s exceedingly linear structure, while unavoidable, renders it rather methodical and shallow in characterization. There is also something of the sense of the film as a live-action storyboard, so highly developed is its sense of organization and calculated effect.
Nevertheless, the film works in a primal way as the story of three brave explorers who manage to find a way home in the face of hazardous obstacles and heavy odds. The verisimilitude with which the mission has been visualized is impressive, and the positive, virtuous, “failure-is-not-an-option” posture of the characters has been adopted winningly by the entire cast and crew.
Placing the opening scenes in a family context manages the twin feats of conveying some needed exposition and establishing the film’s wholesome credentials. A bunch of NASA personnel and their kin assemble to watch the dramatic moment on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. The host, family man Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), was aboard Apollo 8 when it passed just 60 nautical miles above the moon, and he’s only got to wait nine more months to get his chance to become the fifth man to set foot on the lunar surface.
As the April 11, 1970, launch date approaches, command module pilot Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) is exposed to measles and has to be replaced by swinging bachelor Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). But by the time they and lunar module pilot Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) blast off on their 600,000-mile trip, the public has come to regard moon missions as almost routine and worthy of only passing interest.
Two-and-a-half days later, and 50 minutes into the picture, this attitude abruptly changes. During a routine “stirring” of the oxygen supply, an oxygen tank explodes, which quickly leads to three significant problems for the crew: a dissipating oxygen supply, reduced power on board and a filtering system on the blink, leaving the men susceptible to carbon dioxide poisoning.
Many questions present themselves, all demanding immediate solutions on the part of the technicians at Mission Control: Should the spacecraft turn around at once or continue on around the moon and “slingshot” back toward Earth? How can electrical power be husbanded long enough to get them home? Can the men withstand the resulting frigid temperatures inside the ship? Even if all else goes well, can the crippled craft survive the fiery re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere?
The answers generally prove more interesting than genuinely exciting, although the twists and turns provided by factual history prove as lively and imaginative as any fiction. While chain-smoking flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) overseas the rescue operation, some of the key contributions are made by Mattingly, who is snatched from drunken depression to work in the flight simulator until he figures out the best course of action.
Through this critical portion of the six-day mission, events in Houston prove considerably more dramatic than goings-on in space, where the men shiver and await the fateful moment when they must attempt re-entry. A number of nicely individualized scientists and nerdy computer geniuses argue the merits of different courses of action, with Kranz making the ultimate decisions through a sort of consensus by decree.
Journalism background of screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert is quite evident, as script prosaically conveys gobs of information to explain the intricacies of the rescue operation while stuffing a little emotion and characterization into the margins. Howard makes all the complicated action clear to the viewer, a feat in itself.
Physically, “Apollo 13” pulls off some stunners, notably the giant rocket launch, the separation of the boosters as the spaceship soars away from Earth, the views of the moon and scenes of weightlessness that were filmed aboard a high-flying Air Force plane that afforded the actors brief moments of zero gravity. Kudos to the special effects hands at Digital Domain, production designer Michael Corenblith, costume designer Rita Ryack and the army of technicians on board for an outstanding display of authenticity. Dean Cundey’s lensing works to seamlessly blend f/x work with normal scenes, but look of the images leans toward the grainy and soft.
Casting Hanks as Lovell gives the film a human center, someone with whom the audience can easily feel at home, but his dramatic opportunities are more limited here than of late. His most powerful scene has him calming down his two partners when their dilemma threatens to get the better of them late in the journey.
Bacon brings a colorful cockiness to the one “Top Gun”-style flyer in the bunch, while Paxton is obliged to suffer quietly with a high fever during much of the journey. Harris’ coiled tension provides a strong focus of attention in the control room, and Kathleen Quinlan gives depth of feeling and understanding to the necessarily compartmentalized role of Lovell’s omen-fearing wife.
“Apollo 13” will inevitably be compared to the only previous large-scale film about the U.S. space program, 1983’s “The Right Stuff.” A critical success but B.O. underachiever, earlier pic was ambitious in attempting to outline the origins of U.S. space exploration and to investigate notions of courage and heroism. New effort is much more succinct and conventional in its aims and will no doubt play more successfully with the public.