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Film Review - Apollo 13 (1995)
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.
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.
All of my fiilm reviews can be accessed at the following page
- 100 of the Greatest Movies in History - A Greensleeves Page
What makes a great film? Everyone will have their own views, but perhaps the only defining quality is quality itself. This, however, is my list of 100 of the greatest films ever made. The list also includes links to all my film reviews.
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
Mary Kate Schellhardt
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
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.
If You like This Movie ...
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.
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.
“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?'
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.
Paperback account of the mission
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.
Some of My Other Drama Film Reviews
- United 93
This is a dramatised account of the events of 9/11 and the passengers who fought back on United 93. It's not sensationalist entertainment. It's just a faithful account of ordinary people faced with a terrible crisis and a horrific dilemma
The last days of Adolf Hitler in his Berlin bunker at the end of World War Two, has been documented often in factual programmes. This film is the first serious movie by a German director to tackle this sensitive aspect of his country's history
- Falling Down
Falling Down is the study of a man's tortured mental descent from law abiding citizen to crazed killer, as he walks across town. This film documents how the final pieces of his life collapse on a hot day in Los Angeles. He is falling down.
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Russell Crowe is Captain Jack Aubrey in a tale of two dueling ships during the Napoleonic era. The Acheron is a tough, fast, state of the art French warship and more than a match for Aubrey's H.M.S Surprise. But Aubrey must find a way to defeat it
- Enemy at the Gates
In 1942 the battle for Stalingrad is raging. The beleagured Russians are looking for heroes to inspire them, and deadly sniper Vassili Zaitsev fulfills that role. But German Major Koenig has one mission in life - to eliminate the Russian sharpshooter
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