Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: it would appear, from the evidence, that there are two ways you can treat the Apollo moon missions in cinema - with utter contempt, as in Transformers: Dark of the Moon or this week's Apollo 18, or with worshipful respect and adoration and patriotic tubthumping. I shall today take a look at the latter sort, revisiting a summer movie of yore that meant an awful lot to a certain adolescent who'd later become something of a film blogger.
* It is the high water mark of the last Golden Age of American nostalgia, and given that, it's always surprised me a bit that there are so very few non-documentary movies about the Space Race, and the history of NASA through the end of the Apollo Program. By my count, I get two, 1983's The Right Stuff and 1995's Apollo 13, and it just so happens that a kindly fate has ensured that both of them are pretty tremendous movies - the first unambiguously great, the second so deliriously close to great that I'm tempted just to sweep it in, particular given how far better it is than anything else its director has ever touched.
(There's also the quite fine 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon that basically owes its existence to Apollo 13, and if we really want to squint, the 2000 Australian comedy The Dish. Adding up to fewer historical US space program movies than there are Final Destinations.)
Our current subject is Apollo 13, which was for a brief span in the mid-'90s possibly my favorite movie ever, and certainly the VHS tape that I watched the most in 1996.† That's the full disclosure part of the review, and I'd be lying if I said that I was able to get over every last hurdle of nostalgia: there are flaws in the movie, without a doubt, and yet I find myself awfully willing to ignore them, or worse yet, excuse them. But let us press on.
On 20 July, 1969, the Lunar Module Eagle touched down on the surface of Earth's moon, whereupon Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to set foot on another celestial body. A mere eight months later, the third trip to the moon launched, Apollo 13, comprising the Command Module Odyssey and the Lunar Module Aquarius, manned by Commander Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), CM Pilot Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and LM Pilot Fred Haise (Bill Paxton). On the third day of the mission, during routine maintenance, one of the vessel's oxygen tanks exploded,‡ crippling the ship and forcing a mission abort. This in turn led to a scramble onboard and at NASA Mission Control to manage the crisis and bring the astronauts back to Earth safely.
That nice little history book précis papers over a whole lot of effort by a whole lot of people to get Apollo 13 back home in once piece, with all the attendant human drama along the way. That human drama is, naturally enough, the focus of the movie, though one of the things that has always impressed me about Apollo 13 is that, despite the presence of a marquee star like Tom Hanks, who was at the very height of his box office powers in 1995 (and whose performance here is maybe his best of the 1990s), the filmmakers never make the movie "about" Jim Lovell, even though the primary source for William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert's screenplay was Lovell's memoir Lost Moon. It's not a film of individual heroism, but the collective effort of a whole lot of characters, some of whom we never even come to know by name - a nice corrective to the general cultural awareness of the moon missions being limited to the astronauts involved, and even then only the glamorous ones (quickly, who served alongside Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11?), ignoring the thousands of scientists, technicians, and craftsmen who made the rockets go. One suspects that this is partially the influence of Reinert, whose single film credit to this point was the definitive Apollo Program documentary For All Mankind; at any rate, I am pleased that there exists a blockbuster popcorn movie that introduced Joe and Jane Filmgoer to Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), even managing to make him look every bit as much a hero as the three astronauts - partially it is true, by fudging history. For that matter, Apollo 13 is obliged to fudge history in a lot of extremely tiny ways: Kranz is the biggest, being a composite of multiple figures (and his slogan-ready ejaculation "Failure is not an option!" a bit of Hollywood braggadocio), but certain moments are pushed together, details of plot streamlined, and so on and so forth: nothing tremendously out of place, but the overall effect is to make the whole thing a bit more exciting and a bit more rousing.
Are these sins? I don't quite know. It's very nice to have summer movies that are thrilling & rousing, after all. Nonetheless, something about Apollo 13 feels a bit packaged, warm humanism and unproblematic patriotism presented in a manner that somehow feels like historical tinkering went on, even though, for a fact-based Hollywood picture, very little did (in point of fact, Apollo 13 generally hews closer to reality than did The Right Stuff, a film that never feels quite as hectoring). Nostalgia can be genuine, and nostalgia can be a marketing tool, and Apollo 13 is always crowded up next to the line between the two, though always on the right side.
And this, I think, is due to director Ron Howard, one of the most unfortunate souls in Hollywood, though I'm sure his Oscar and his tens of millions of dollars would argue otherwise. Howard's great problem as a filmmaker is that he's too good at making movies that are slick and hollow and commercial, which is harmless when he's cranking out action-adventure pablum like Ransom or The Da Vinci Code, except that he can't turn it off, and when he gets to making a movie that, to all appearances, he believes in - Cinderella Man or Backdraft or the infamous A Beautiful Mind - his stabs at pathos and emotional resonance typically feel horribly insincere, regardless of their sincerity. His movies are straightforward, episodic, and far too concerned with making us feel good all over; in fact, he recalls Spielberg at his worst, except Howard is in that place all the damn time. Apollo 13 is, I should think, unquestionably his best film, and partially it's because the content inoculates itself against Howard's arch-commercial instinct: if there is one subject that makes it okay to feel old-fashioned patriotism and pride in humanity and a warm sense that things never get so bad that they can't get better, it is surely the US space program. Still, the film's single most pervasive problem, which is its tendency to break down into episodes (now it's the "energy loss" part of the film, and now it's the "CO filter" part of the film, and now it's the "entry angle" part of the film), is vintage Howard.
Anyway, though the thing might ultimately be too forgiving and rewarding for the audience, it has the decency to be those things in the best possible way. The overt Americana of James Horner's score fits the movie well while failing, for once, to sound like every other Horner score ever (instead, it sounds like a decent riff on John Williams's militaristic scores); and the movie is a staggering technical achievement, utilising CGI that was the absolute bleeding edge in 1995 and still looks far better today than the effects work in movies ten years younger, and also famously involving a whole lot of photography done in zero gravity conditions. Dean Cundey, one of the great under-appreciated cinematographers of the last 30 years, filmed the inside of the capsule and Lunar Module, cramped spaces barely big enough for three humans, with some of the most innovative angles imaginable, though since those angles are trying to call the smallest amount of attention to themselves, the thing looks completely normal & thus "uninteresting" despite the amount of effort it must have taken to make things look normal.
The movie is comfort food, in short, but there are good and bad ways of making comfort food. This is one of the best - simple without being insulting, nostalgic without being reductive. It is not the masterpiece I thought it was when I was 14, but it's among the most resilient of '90s blockbusters and a damn sight more sincere and grown-up than the sort of films that have replaced it.