Directed by: Ron Howard
Premise: The true story of NASA astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and their mission to the moon, which became a struggle for survival when a malfunction caused their spacecraft to leak oxygen.
What Works: Apollo 13 is a terrific example of dramatizing familiar history and making it into a gripping story. This is done, ironically, by not playing the event as a major earth-shattering affair from the outset, but by focusing on story and character, and building the drama effectively as would be done in a fictional story. As a historical piece, the film puts the events in context without dwelling on it too much, incorporating music and pop culture references to give the film an appropriate backdrop and demonstrate how the Apollo 13 mission fit into the history of the space program and more broadly into American history. As a film about space, Apollo 13 is refreshing in its serious treatment of space exploration. Aside from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, this is one of the only feature films to deal seriously with the possibilities of space exploration and stay within the boundaries of facts and science rather than fall into the silly science fiction of films like Space Camp or Armageddon. Apollo 13 is an extremely well edited piece of film, balancing between the drama on board the spacecraft, the tension in NASA control, and the anxiety of the astronaut’s families. Between these three story fronts, there are some very good performances in the film. The three principle actors work very well together but there are also some commanding performances in the supporting roles such as Ed Harris as flight director Gene Kranz, Gary Sinise as astronaut Ken Mattingly, and Kathleen Quinlan as spouse Marilyn Lovell.
What Doesn’t: Things don’t really get going in the film until the space accident, which is well into the running time of the picture. While the scenes that precede that moment pay off, some viewers may get antsy waiting for the story to get going.
DVD extras: Commentary tracks, documentary, featurettes, and NASA footage.
Bottom Line: Apollo 13 is a terrific film and probably the best picture Ron Howard has made. It is also worth noting that the film inspired the excellent HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon, which dramatizes the Apollo missions.
Episode: #248 (July 26, 2009)