REVIEW REVISITED: Apollo 13 (1995)

This is a reprint of my review first published on Three Men on a Blog in May 2011, with a number of substantial revisions. You can read my original review here.

Apollo 13 (USA, 1995)
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise

Throughout his career, Ron Howard has always been somewhat underestimated as a director. His background on Happy Days and his love of sentimental storylines have led many people to brand him as 'Spielberg-lite', trying to pack the same emotional punches of his more famous colleague but without having the same level of imagination to pull it off. While Howard has made a number of big mis-steps in his career (The Da Vinci Code being one of the most egregious), his filmography as a whole suggests a man of many talents and interests who has never quite got the credit that he deserves.
More than any other film in his back catalogue, Apollo 13 is the film which should silence doubters about Howard's credibility as a director. It pulls off a really difficult trick, namely taking a story whose famous characteristic is its ending and making it tense and dramatic both for people who know the story backwards and those coming to it the very first time. Howard's direction is top-notch and his attention to detail in both the script and the visuals has ensured that the film still holds together after 23 years. It remains the gold standard for space-set dramas, and may even be Howard's best work behind the camera.
One of the big issues which all period dramas have to deal with is capturing the period setting in a believable way. You can't just put a character in a miniskirt with The Beatles in the background and expect us to believe that it's the 1960s; instead, you have to focus on the little details, giving the audience enough clues to trust that the setting is accurate without the film becoming solely about fashions and popular culture. This is particularly difficult when you're dealing with an important historical event with plentiful archive footage or old news reports available. The temptation is to just plaster Walter Cronkite and his ilk all over the screen whenever an exposition dump is needed, but as George Clooney found on Good Night and Good Luck (with the footage of Joseph McCarthy), this can jar with an audience - too much realism can actually take them out of the action.
 Apollo 13 is one of the few Hollywood films (at least in this period) which manages to pull this off. Much of the old footage which is used generally repeats information we already known in a slightly different way, but it is well-integrated through its timing and positioning in the plot. Rather than being shoved in front of an old TV screen and sitting through a few seconds of Dick Cavett, these clips are only rolled out once we feel invested in the characters, and feel like we are watching alongside them. The other period touches - including the cars and the costumes - all feel well-researched but don't draw attention to themselves, and even the most distinctive elements (like Ed Harris' white waistcoat) are handled very diligently.
In approaching its subject matter, Apollo 13 is less of a Hollywood blockbuster and more of a high-tech cousin of All The President's Men. Like Alan J. Pakula on that film, Howard is starting on the basis that the audience already knows something about the outcome of the real-life event - respectively the resignation of Richard Nixon and all three Apollo 13 astronauts making it back to Earth. And like Pakula, he flatters the audience, letting them figure things out in the build-up to the main event. They walk into the film invested on an intellectual level, and come out with an emotional bond as well as having learned more about an interesting subject.
Where All The President's Men created tension through conflicting information and the political pressure being put on Woodward and Bernstein, Apollo 13 plants small seeds of doubt about the mission in the audience's mind. Some of these seeds are played for laughs, with the astronauts joking about taking a pig into space to combat the bad luck of the number 13. But other scenes are equally effective at making us feel uneasy about the fortunes of Jim Lovell and his crew. Individually, Marilyn losing her wedding ring in the shower or Ken Mattingly getting the measles wouldn't be enough to get us worried - we might write them off entirely, or at least dismiss them as not too significant. But Howard structures these moments as milestones on the countdown to disaster; because we don't pick up on everything the first time round, the pay-off still comes as a surprise.
This slow, ominous build-up is complimented by the way in which the astronauts' mission is contextualised. Where a more histrionic film would have built this up as 'the most important moon mission since Apollo 11' or other such nonsense, Howard is keen to point out the public's waning interest in the US space programme in 1970. This is all done with subtle hints, whether it's Marilyn mentioning she might not come to the launch, her daughter being more bothered about The Beatles breaking up, or the TV stations not showing Lovell's broadcast live (in an exchange reminiscent of the ratings speech in Capricorn One). The films taps into the idea that people only care about things when they go horribly wrong - a view which seems all the more biting in today's car-crash celebrity culture.
The scenes in space are masterful on three levels. Firstly, they are a mechanical marvel - before Gravity came along, this vied with 2001: A Space Odyssey as the most realistic depiction of weightlessness in cinema. By recreating weightlessness through hundreds of parabola flights, shooting just 30 seconds at a time, Howard gives Tom Hanks et al the chance to relax into their roles which they wouldn't get from being winched around in harnesses or jumping around against green-screen. His choice of camera angles is superb: because shooting could take place on any angle and would drift around at will, we feel like an active, curious observer, allowing things to unfold more naturally than if we were rooted to the spot. Throw in the excellent special effects and cinematography by John Carpenter's long-time collaborator Dean Cundey, and you have one smashing shot after another.
Secondly, Apollo 13 is an argument for being able to maintain tension without losing accuracy, and vice versa. Screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert stuck as closely to the mission transcripts as possible - something which adds realism without the film ever becoming tedious. A few creative liberties are taken, including the film's most famous line - Jim Lovell actually said: "Houston, we've had a problem". But it never feels like the film is labouring to be accurate merely out of any sense of duty to NASA purists. Howard is determined to get things as right as possible, while maintaining a lightness of touch and a populist approach so that we always understand and care about what is happening, even when the jargon starts flowing.
Thirdly, the scenes in space see Howard and the script stretching their narrative muscles a little. In amidst all the procedural dialogue and the individual races against time, we get a number of touching fantasy sequences which use outer space to focus on inner space, as all proper science fiction should. In one such sequence, Tom Hanks imagines himself walking on the moon; in a scene reminiscent of The Ninth Configuration, Howard contrasts the silent awe of the moon's surface with the quiet despair on Lovell's face from inside the lunar module. It's a beautiful moment which expresses Howard's confidence in himself, the material and the actors who are bringing it to life.
The performances in Apollo 13 are excellent across the board. Following back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks continues to embody the likeable American everyman even in the most extraordinary of circumstances. He is totally believable as Jim Lovell, and is complimented beautifully by his co-stars Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon, who both give the best performances of their respective careers. On the ground Ed Harris remains eternally underrated as flight director Gene Kranz, and there is a very fine supporting performance by Gary Sinise, who would collaborate with Hanks again on The Green Mile.
The only real mis-steps in Apollo 13 are those which pander to Hollywood's expectations, either in the stakes of the mission or attempts to lighten the mood. The scene with the grandmother and the Apollo 11 astronauts feels forced and over-played, though it is at least brief enough not to throw us out of the picture. More problematic is the argument between Bacon and Paxton's characters - something which didn't happen in real life and which comes across as manufactured. There is enough tension in these scenes without adding more into the mix, and while the film does get over it quickly, it could have just as easily been cut without harming anything. 
Apollo 13 is a great docudrama which remains a standard to which all future historical dramas should aspire. Howard directs with confidence and aplomb to wring out all the tension he can without it feeling contrived, bolstered by a very fine script, great performances from his three leading men and visuals which are both technically superb and deeply involving. It is a very hard film to dislike and a hard act to follow for all involved.

For more of my thoughts on Capricorn One, check out The Movie Hour podcast here.

NEXT REVIEW: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)