Film Review - Apollo 13 (1995)

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Introduction

In 1970, the first major crisis to affect the American space programme whilst astronauts were actually in outer space occurred when the Apollo 13 moon mission developed a critical fault. The world watched in suspense as the fate of the astronauts hung in the balance. In 1995 Director Ron Howard made a movie about the crisis, to do justice to the unceasing struggle of the technical controllers back on Earth to bring the men home. The result was a great film. This is a review of that film.

Plot Spoilers

In my reviews, any plot spoilers will usually be highlighted; but this film is factually based, and I will assume everyone knows the outcome of Apollo 13. Please therefore be aware no warnings are given in this page.

What's the Story?

In 1970, man had already landed on the moon, not once, but twice. Among the media a degree of complacency had developed. People had become blasé, and the networks were already beginning to lose interest in what was just another moon shot. But when astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert blasted off on 11th April 1970, mission control knew that the dangers involved in space exploration were still very real (and remain real today as evidenced by two shuttle disasters), and the courage of all the astronauts involved in flying to the moon was still very great.

Computer technology in 1970 was primitive compared with 2011, and there was no way astronauts could be rescued if things went wrong. There might indeed be no way in which people back at mission control in Houston - for all their expertise - could do anything to help the men. It might come down to guesswork and makeshift solutions if things went wrong. Things did go wrong ....

This movie is the story of what mission control did to try to get the astronauts back safely, and how the astronauts coped with being stranded in outer space.

Main Cast & Characters

ACTOR
CHARACTER
Tom Hanks
Jim Lovell
Kevin Bacon
Jack Swigert
Bill Paxton
Fred Haise
Ed Harris
Gene Kranz
Gary Sinise
Ken Mattingly
Kathleen Quinlan
Marilyn Lovell 
Mary Kate Schellhardt
Barbara Lovell
David Andrews
Pete Conrad
Chris Ellis
Deke Slayton
Clint Howard
Sy Liebergot
Jo Spano
NASA Director
Kenneth White
Grumman Rep

The Facts of the Film

DIRECTOR : Ron Howard

WRITERS / SCREENPLAY :

  • Jim Lovell, Jeffrey Kluger, William Broyles Jr, Al Reinert

YEAR OF RELEASE : 1995

RUNNING TIME : 140 minutes

GENRE : Drama

ACADEMY AWARDS :

  • Mike Hill, Daniel P Hanley (Best Film Editing)
  • Rick Dior, Steve Pederson, Scott Millan, David MacMillan (Best Sound)

ACADEMY NOMINATIONS :

  • Ed Harris (Best Actor in a Supporting Role)
  • Kathleen Quinlan (Best Actress in a Supporting Role)
  • Also Best Art and Set Direction / Best Effects / Best Music / Best Picture / Best Adapted Screenplay

Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon
Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon | Source

NEGATIVES ?

Inevitably some of the dialogue, particularly at the moments of greatest crisis, is technical and may pass the viewer by without full comprehension - in such moments script authenticity decrees that the technical boys are not going to turn to each other and calmly give a layman's guide as to what's going on. Such moments however, are few and extremely brief, and to be honest they don't matter. I've watched the film a dozen times and I still don't really know what caused the crisis - what matters is the human drama, not the technical drama.

Best Characters / Performances

For me, the commanding character (in every sense of the words) is Ed Harris in the role of flight director Gene Kranz. Perhaps Harris was lucky - most of the best lines seem to have been given to him, but it's a first rate performance of calm authority and determination.

All the other guys in mission control seem authentic in their technical concerns and discussions, and Gary Sinise turns in a good performance as Ken Mattingly, an astronaut dropped from the mission at the last moment due to health concerns, but then brought back in an advisory capacity to help get the Apollo 13 crew back.

The families of the stranded astronauts are also well portrayed by all the actors, including the children. As for the astronauts themselves, they make an interestingly diverse threesome - professional in their actions, yet clearly under immense stress, as portrayed by Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton.

Ed Harris and Kathleen Quinlan were both nominated for Oscars in best supporting roles.

TRIVIA

Zero gravity scenes were shot in the 'Vomit Comet', a US military plane which induces the effects of weightlessness by diving at velocity from great altitude. Each dive only lasts for 23 seconds at a time before the plane has to pull out, so the cast and crew had to work very quickly to get their shots, before falling back to the floor of the cabin with a thud when the plane pulled out of its dive. In total 509 dives were required to shoot all the necessary zero gravity sequences.

Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell wrote the account on which the film was based. He had originally wanted Kevin Costner to play him in the movie.

And Lovell himself appeared in the film in a very small cameo role as the captain of the USS Iwo Jima, the ship which rescues the astronauts from the ocean at the end of the movie. Tom Hanks playing the role of Jim Lovell, gets to shake the hand of the real man - a symbolic moment perhaps.

Apollo 13: To the Edge and Back
Apollo 13: To the Edge and Back

Documentary about the true-life mission, including comments from Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Gene Kranz

 

What's so Good About It?

Well it shouldn't be should it? We all know the story and the outcome, so the ending shouldn't be nail-biting. It's a true story, without much action - no violence, no sex, no running about, no car chases, no beautiful scenery, not many laughs - mostly it's just dialogue. As for my personal viewpoint - when I first saw the film, I wasn't even a big fan of Tom Hanks. On the face of it, this was one movie with very little going for it.

And yet.... The crisis is as gripping as in any movie, and the ending is tense and emotional, basically because the whole movie has a ring of authenticity about it. You don't think of the people as actors, because the performances are restrained and utterly believable, and because there is a documentary-like quality to the story. The film script is arguably the best ever of its kind. And I grew to like Tom Hanks.

Favourite Quotes

“Houston, we have a problem.” Jim Lovell

“Failure is not an option.” Gene Kranz

The two quotes above have entered American folklore, but they are genuine quotes from the real-life participants in the Apollo 13 drama, and are of course, faithfully recalled in the movie.

This is one film where dialogue is all important. And it's just about perfect. The sometimes light-hearted, sometimes bitter and sarcastic banter between the astronauts and the ground crew, seems entirely credible. Most of the best dialogue on the ground serves to emphasise the improvisational, play-it-by-ear nature of the technical response. The following two quotes illustrate this;

At one point Gene Kranz asks flight controller Sy Liebergot; 'Can we review our status here .......... What have we got on that spacecraft that's good?' Liebergot tellingly replies 'I'll get back to you Gene'.

In another discussion Kranz says 'I don't care what anything was designed to do, I care about what it can do.'

But the best line of all is left to Kathleen Quinlan as Jim Lovell's distraught wife. Having seen her husband's mission shunned by the media as being boring and routine, she now finds them ghoulishly camped on her lawn in anticipation of disaster. Requested to give an interview she asks bitterly of the press:

'Well if landing on the moon wasn't dramatic enough for them, why should not landing on it be?'

Favourite Scenes

Many of the best scenes emphasise the frustration of dealing with a problem with which mission control cannot apply their technical wizardry. All they can do is 'make do' with what's on board the spacecraft, and get the astronauts to adapt and modify it to achieve a new purpose.

The scene which best illustrates this is one in which a pile of junk is poured on to a work surface - plastic bags, bits of piping, even a copy of the astronauts' instruction manual which they are prepared to tear apart and recycle. The purpose of this exercise was to deal with a build-up of potentially fatal carbon dioxide within the cabin of the spacecraft. This was ordinarily done by passing the cabin air through cannisters of lithium hydroxide. Unfortunately, the crisis mean't that all the cannisters in both parts of the craft - the command module and the lunar module - were required, but cannisters in one part of the craft were square in cross-section, and the piping they had to attach to to be used in the other part, was round in cross-section. The technicians literally had to find a way to fit a square peg into a round hole, and hold it all together with sticky tape!

But of course it is the final moments which make this film. Even though we all know the outcome, the tension on the ground in Houston and in the homes and workplaces of the astronauts' families and friends, involves us fully in the minutes which pass - minutes in which mission control is powerless, and everyone involved is just praying and hoping, and waiting to see if the module has successfully survived re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere; the radio-crackling re-emergence of the module and the voice of Jim Lovell, is the most moving sequence in the movie.

Apollo 13
Apollo 13

Paperback account of the mission

 

Recommendations

For me this is one of the most realistic films ever made. Everything about the performances seems entirely believeable. Whilst I am sure some dramatic license was taken with the storyline, the basics are authentic; this seems a faithful account of the drama, and a fitting tribute to the men involved in the real crisis. My verdict is that it is one of the ten best films ever made.

Please Provide Your Assessment of This Film

5 out of 5 stars from 1 rating of this film

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Please Add Comments If You Will. Thanks, Alun 17 comments

Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 13 months ago from Essex, UK Author

Credence2; Thanks very much for your comment. I can of course agree absolutely about this film - the quality of acting, technical work and attention to detail, is evidence that cast and crew had a reverence and respect for the actual people invoved in the real-life crisis. I particularly like your remark about the three astronauts, and the sense of isolation, loneliness and vulnerability in space which any astronaut must experience - despite being able to see with their own eyes their home world where several billion people are living.


Credence2 profile image

Credence2 14 months ago from Florida (Space Coast)

This is another one of my favorites primarely for its technical excellence, cinematography, special effects. I am usually smitten by any film having to do with space travel.

The film conveyed the isolation felt by three men who could see the Earth from their port window, but still, it was far and inaccessible. We see how difficult it is for the child to separate from its mother and how fragile and vulnerable we are.

I cheered for the tremedous resourcefulness of the ground control folks in using every bit of their ingenuity to bring these three men safely to Earth accomodating circumstances no one could anticipate.

This was a great and a great review, Alun, thanks!


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 22 months ago from Essex, UK Author

Paladin; Many thanks Paladin for your thoughtful contributions on the film and Jim Lovell's career. The story of Apollo 13 is one of the great stories of courageous adventure, and the film 'Apollo 13' is a fitting tribute to that event and the men involved both on the ground and up in space. And indeed it's a fitting tribute to all those humans who dare to venture into the unknown.


Paladin_ profile image

Paladin_ 22 months ago from Michigan, USA

"Apollo 13" was, indeed, a great movie! As you say, even as we know the ultimate outcome, the tension and suspense throughout the second half of the film are absolutely riveting.

Another great quote from the film -- when the engineers inform Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) of the mismatching round and circular oxygen scrubbers, he replies in frustration, "Tell me this isn't a government project!"

And my absolute favorite quote from the movie -- when Jim Lovell's wife and kids are visiting Jim's mother in the nursing home and the youngest daughter is visibly frightened. Jim's mother calms her by saying, with a very serious face, "Don't worry sweety. If they could make a washing machine fly, my Jimmy could land it!"

Another bit of trivia: Though Jim Lovell will always be remembered as the commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, most people don't realize that he also has the distinction of being one of the first three human beings to actually reach the moon.

Along with William Anders and Frank Borman, he was the first to orbit the moon, only 70 miles above the surface. You may remember the scene in "Apollo 13" when an excited Jack Swigert, pointing his camera down to the lunar surface, says to Lovell, "Jim, you've gotta see this!" And Lovell replies, with a defected, knowing look, "I've seen it." His previous trip is what he's referring to.

I may be mistaken, but I think Lovell is also the one responsible for what is perhaps the most famous image of Earth, the blue, cloudy photograph of an Earth-rise that probably anyone who's ever looked into a science book has seen at least once.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK Author

My sincere thanks jainismus. It's a film worthy of addition to any CD collection because one doesn't grow tired of watching it many times - the mark of a great film.


jainismus profile image

jainismus 3 years ago from Pune, India

This is one of my most favorite Tom Hanks movies. I watched it in 1995, and recently I have bought a CD of this film.

A great Hub about a great film, thanks for sharing the details.


Thief12 profile image

Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

I agree. I always enjoy his performances. Even when the film isn't that great, he elevates the material.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thief12; Thanks for your visit and comment. Totally agree about Ed Harris - one of my favourite actors of recent times.


Thief12 profile image

Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

Love this film! Very rewatchable and enjoyable. Ed Harris was excellent.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks a lot Derdriu. I totally agree about the attention to detail in the film and the acting, none of which is overplayed, and all of which is believeable in all respects. It's a film which appeals to me more each time I see it, and which seems full of integrity for the homage it pays to the real people involved in the crisis.

I really appreciate your compliments Derdriu. Thanks so much for reading this page.


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

A very very belated thanks to QudsiaP1 for your nice comment. Can't think how I failed to note and acknowledge your visit to the page, so apologies for that, but it was much appreciated.


Derdriu 5 years ago

Alun: What a fascinating, informative, logical review of a suspenseful movie about picking up the slack between nascent technology and space-age happenings! This film is one of my favorites, because of the attention to detail, the acting performances and the accuracy of the plot. Your review certainly does the film justice in its cogent summary of plot and analysis of character and effects. It is a pleasure to read such a clearly articulated and tightly organized article.

Thank you for sharing, voted up, etc.,

Derdriu


QudsiaP1 profile image

QudsiaP1 5 years ago

A very well written review.

You should write some more reviews, you made it very interesting. Great job.

P.S: Couldn't keep myself away from writing, do check it out if you have the time, might be a series. :)


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanx for that Sharon. Appreciated.


sharon 5 years ago

great work great thinking . waiting to read more


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks so much for the comments Cogerson - they'll help to encourage me to try and write a few more film reviews in the future!


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

Great hub...this is one of my favorite movies ever....I love Hanks especially in the movie....very interesting and informative hub....voted up useful and awesome...great job...Greensleeves

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