Apollo 13 (review)

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Sounds of Silence

There’s a saying among science-fiction buffs: The meek shall inherit the Earth — the rest of us are going to the stars. The point is that space travel is not for the faint of heart, that it takes some daring to even attempt to get off this rock. But the audacity of the Apollo program — the details of which Ron Howard lovingly recreates in Apollo 13 — is really shocking. The technology at NASA’s disposal was all state of the art at the time, of course, but in retrospect, it’s almost horrifying. We threw human beings toward the Moon at bullet speed, in tin cans with less computing power than my old Commodore 64. Life-and-death equations were figured with pencil and paper. It boggles the mind, to think we thought we could get away with this. It’s an amazing testament to human ingenuity and ambition.

Not everything went smoothly, though, and Apollo 13 is the story of one mission deemed a “successful failure,” in that no one died even though the Moon landing was aborted. En route to the Moon in April 1970, astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks: The Green Mile, Toy Story 2), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton: Mighty Joe Young, A Simple Plan), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon: My Dog Skip, Stir of Echoes) find themselves with a dying command module, bleeding air and losing power, while the guys back in Houston — lead by Gene Kranz (Ed Harris: Stepmom, The Truman Show) — hastily improvise a new mission plan to get them home safely.

Despite the fact that we all know how the story ends, director Ron Howard (EDtv) manages to make Apollo 13 not only riveting but suspenseful as well. Howard’s attention to detail goes above and beyond the call of duty. Not content to use NASA stock footage, he has created all-new, awe-inspiring images of those big old warhorse Saturn V rockets, which aren’t like anything we still have today, treating us to angles of Apollo 13’s launch and journey that no camera at the time could have captured. And instead of simulating the zero gravity the astronauts experienced on the way to the Moon, Howard shot all the weightless scenes in NASA’s “Vomit Comet,” an airplane that replicates zero gravity without leaving the atmosphere.

Howard mines suspense not from our uncertainty over the outcome of the situation but from the process of solving the nearly innumerable problems NASA faced in trying to jury-rig Apollo 13 so that it would survive long enough to get its crew back to Earth. Geeks as heroes — this is a wonderful thing. Nerds with pocket protectors and slide rules save the day in ingenious ways, as when they figure out how to get a vital carbon-dioxide filter from the command module — a square filter, that is — to fit into a round receptacle to replace a similar, used-up filter in the lunar module, which the astronauts are using as a kind of life raft. And for long stretches of the film, astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise: Reindeer Games, Mission to Mars), bumped from Apollo 13, and a NASA tech (Loren Dean: Mumford, GATTACA) run simulation after simulation on a mockup of Apollo 13’s command module, trying to determine how to make the little juice left in the ship go a long way. It shouldn’t be fascinating, but it is.

But the best thing about Apollo 13 is how moving it is during its most quiet moments. As the film opens, astronauts and their families have gathered to watch Neil Armstrong’s historic first moonwalk, and the news footage we’ve all seen a thousand times is thrilling and beautiful once more as we see it through the fresh eyes of Jim Lovell. (Watching someone as professional and stolid as Walter Cronkite shaking his head and grinning in amazed delight at the video from the Moon is oddly powerful, too.) The scene in which Mattingly reacts wordlessly to the news that he won’t be going to the Moon is one of Sinise’s most affecting and effective moments onscreen — just the look on his face makes you feel his crushing disappointment. When Lovell reports from space that it looks as if Apollo 13 is venting oxygen, the dead silence in mission control as the guys there stare at one another in shock hits you in the gut. The long minutes when Apollo 13 is behind the Moon and out of radio contact with Houston emphasizes how tenuous a tether the astronauts have with home — and Lovell’s brief vision during that quiet time of himself on the Moon is unimaginably poignant.

I love Apollo 13. Not only does it have a cast chock full of some of my favorite actors (Sinise, Paxton, Dean, Harris), but it dares to suggest that even fears of disaster shouldn’t be holding us back from continuing the greatest adventure of the 20th century into the 21st.

Addendum 10.04.02
Could I have been more geeked when I heard that Apollo 13 was going to be released in IMAX format? In a word: No. I never tire of this terrific film (number 74 on my own personal Top 100 list), and it never fails to move me emotionally. Blow it up to the overwhelming IMAX size, I figured, and it’d be even more powerful… and I was right.

When “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was converted to IMAX a few years ago for Fantasia 2000, it looked pretty grainy, but A13 is the first 35mm live-action film ever to be remade for IMAX through a new digital remastering process, and it looks spectacular: crisp, sharp, every detail thrown into marked relief. When that massive Saturn V launches the Apollo mission into space, it’s like you’re watching from right there on the gangway. And the confines of the lunar module-cum-lifeboat seem, paradoxically, even more cramped on that enormous screen as Hanks, Paxton, and Bacon bounce off the squared-off image; the depths of space seem all the colder and lonelier.

The sound, surprisingly, is not as pumped up as it should be — those rockets don’t rock you like you’d expect, and sometimes you have to strain to hear the dialog — and some scenes, disappointingly, had to be cut or truncated to accommodate a limitation of the IMAX format that requires films to be under 120 minutes in running time. But those are minor quibbles. Apollo 13 in IMAX is awesome.

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