Friday, July 3, 2020

“Apollo 13”– Boldly Going Where No Film Crew Had Gone Before

With the  4th of July coming up fast, there can be no better moment to contemplate Ron Howard’s 1995 epic, Apollo 13. At a time of angry partisan divide, it’s encouraging to look back at a point in recent history where the entire country—in fact, the entire world—was on the same page. And when, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re all despairing about the American way of life, it’s heartening to remember a crisis that turned into a triumph.

You may recall that in April of 1970, three astronauts blasted off from Cape Canaveral, headed for the moon. Unlike the Apollo 11 mission the previous year, this one occasioned no great amount of press coverage. When Neil Armstrong and his two-man crew departed for the lunar surface in July of 1969, the whole world was watching. Armstrong’s slow-motion steps on the moon—the first by any human being—were cheered by virtually everyone in range of a TV set. The Apollo 12 mission in November 1969 was blissfully uneventful, which meant that by the time James Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert strapped into their seats in April 1970, few members of the public were paying much attention. Journalists who interviewed the men before their departure questioned whether they were nervous about the number thirteen. True to their training as tough-minded men of science, they all expressed total confidence in their mission and in each other. Little did they know that an on-board explosion would cripple their spacecraft, leading to the very real possibility that they’d never return to earth.

I thought a great deal about Apollo 13 while writing Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond. Howard’s film, which I consider a highlight of his long career, points up the many bad omens for those in search of them. Lovell and his crew had been scheduled for Apollo 14, but fairly late in the game were shifted to the earlier mission when astronaut Alan Shepard, returning from medical leave, needed additional training time. Then, three days before the launch, astronaut Ken Mattingly was booted from the crew, over the objections of his teammates, because of exposure to measles. So Swigert was a last-minute replacement, and the film nicely captures the awkwardness between three men (played by Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon) who were not entirely comfortable with one another.

 The script also makes room for the feelings of those on the ground. Marilyn Lovell, wife of Jim, is sympathetically portrayed by Oscar-nominated Kathleen Quinlan as a supportive but anxious helpmeet, trying to juggling her own fears and her responsibilities toward those left behind. Ed Harris was nominated for playing Gene Kranz, who as director of Mission Operations must somehow keep his cool while leading the mission-impossible effort to bring back the stranded astronauts safely.

Some of the film’s strong sense of authenticity comes from the fact that NASA was an integral partner in its production. The space agency, figuring that Americans would not return to the moon for many decades to come, reasoned that this film (based on Lovell’s own memoir, Lost Moon) could be used as an historic record of the near-disaster. NASA therefore provided full access to its documents and facilities, even giving Howard and his three astronauts the unique opportunity to film in brief spurts in the K-135 aircraft (nicknamed the Vomit Comet), used by generations of astronauts to experience weightlessness. I’ll close with high praise for James Horner’s stirring score, and for the film’s poignant reminder that there’s no place like home.

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