Historical Circuit: Apollo 13 (****)


Directed by Ron Howard

When the Academy Award nominations were announced the movie excellence in 1995, I was stunned that Ron Howard was not nominated for Best Director for his stunning work in Apollo 13 (1995) which had been nominated for nine Oscars in all, including Best Picture. The critically acclaimed work would earn Howard the Directors Guild of America Award as Best Director, which made the exclusion from the Academy Awards all the more stinging and frankly, ridiculous. Mel Gibson and Braveheart (1995) would win the Oscars for film and director, shocking more a few of the members of the audience on Oscar night because it was so clearly not the years best film.
Six years later when Howard finally won his Best Director Oscar for A Beautiful Mind (2001) it was clear that the award was for his previous work, because A Beaufitul Mind (2001) is one of those bizarre choices for Best Film and Best Director. HOward’s work as a director is almost always studio friendly, an easy fit within the mainstream, though from time to time he has stepped away from what must now come easy to him and really challenged himself and his audiences. Certainly Apollo 13 (1995) was the first time he attempted to do this and found enormous success. The second time, with The Missing (2003) he directed a masterful film with powerhouse performances from Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones, but nobody went to see the work. Most recently he gave audiences Frost-Nixon (2008), a brilliant adaptation of the play earning another Best Director nomination as well as a Best Picture nod, both richly deserved.
I remember reading a Harry Knowles post in 2000 after seeing a rough cut of the Howard film How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) in which Knowles stated the film would re-define Howard as a filmmaker, which it certainly did not. The film was instead a mess. My issue with Knowles post is that first Howard had already proven himself a formidable director with Apollo 13 (1995) and needed no other film to define him. Secondly, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) is one of his worst films, and another studio film, the sort of thing Howard should stay away from because he has the talent to make strong pictures away from the mainstream. His early work was strong and confident, Night Shift (1982) gave us a confident Michael Keaton, while SPlash! (1984) celebrated the comic talents of Tom Hanks and John Candy. Cocoon (1985) which earned Howard his first nomination from the Directors Guild of America is a wonderfully sappy science fiction ce,ebration of old age that won Don Ameche one of those sentimental Oscars that drive me crazy, though I remember liking the film very much at the time. The years between Cocoon (1995) and Apollo 13 (1995) were a mixed bag of almost misses, box office hits, and a growing confidence as a director, staging bigger sequences, and becoming a stronger director of actors. All of that was put to use in Apollo 13 (1995), the best film of its year and one of the best of the decade.
His greatest challenge with Apollo 13 (1995) was building suspense and tension for a historical event in which everyone knew the ending. The botched Apollo 13 flight was one of the most watched events in the seventies, once things went wrong on a flight the networks did not really care about, because all of a sudden, , three American astronauts were faced with death in space. Laucnhed with the intent of landing and walking on the surface of the moon, Apollo 13 quickly became an event that could have seen three men lost to terrible deaths in the vastness of space, yet instead became a story of heroism and understanding that any sort of failure was simply not an option.
Based on astronaut’s James Lovell’s accounting of the events in his great book Lost Moon, the film is a moment by moment breakdown of what happened in space and at mission control when something went terribly wrong in space when the oxyegen tanks were stirred, and instead exploded leaving the three men in peril as mission control tried to find a way to get them home safely. The film is full of scientific information which could have gone wildly over the heads of the audience, but incredibly the screenwriters make the film accessible to audiences, and Howard brings in the dramatic tension and squeezes every ounce he can. It is to his credit as a director he simnply does not make a false step with the film, filling it with unbearable tension, yet infusing his characters with depth and a sense of heroism, without ever reaching to do so. The astronauts are asked to do things radical to survive, while the men at Mission Control in Houston are asked to do the impossible and bring them home.
Watching this unfold gave me enormous respect for the men who work for NASA, their calm resolute that these men were coming home, and seeing that training put into motion by the astronauts who never give in to panic but calmly face their task and do what they need to do, forging a bond in space they did not have a chance to create before leaving.
Tom Hanks as Lovell, had won back to back Academy Awards for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994) before this film was released, yet gives a performance worthy of at least a nomination. Stoic without it ever being cliche, calm yet quietly frightened of never seeing his family again, he leads by example on the craft, stopping petty arguments and forging a bond with each of his men, letting them know he believed they would make it home again despite the odds. Hanks has always possessed a manner of making the ordinary seem extraordinary, and that very aspect of his acting is on display here for the absolute betterment of the film; this is one of his best performances.
Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton make up the rest of the trio marooned in space, with Bacon creating a complex cocky young astronaut weighed down with the idea that the accident that happened that ruined the moon landing might have been his fault. Thrown into duty when don Matthingly was exposed to German measles and thereby banned from the flight, Swigert (Bacon), the young man did not have the necessary time to forge strong bonds with his fellow astronauts on the flight, and they were forced to trust that his training would make him a suitable replacement for the likable Mattingly. But when he stirs the oxygen tanks and the explosion occurs, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) places blame on Swigert for the error, and lets him know it. Of the two men, Swigert proves the stronger, handling the physical demands of space with no issues, while Haise struggles with the cold, with the fear and the abject terror of not making it back. Both performances are excellent, and each actor has the chance to have many scenes with Hanks, who elevates the work of everyone around him. Once thing all three men do very well, they handle acting in a cramped space beautifully.
Gary Sinise is superb as Don Mattingly, quietly seething at the NASA doctor’s decision to pull him from the flight, yet jumping in in a heartbeat when he learns his friends are in ttrouble. He works tirelessly in the simulator trying to find a way to bring his friends home, his focus and intensity astounding to behold.
The best performance in the film, and the performance that should have earned this gifted actor the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor comes from Ed Harris, whi is astronishing as Gene Kranz, the hard headed FLight Commander who makes it clear that the men will not be lost inb space on his watch. “Failure is not an option” he rages at them before sending them off to put a square in a round hole, and by God they better get it done. Harris is ferociously in tune to the character, looking at home in the control home, and pportrays the role with a quiet sense of honesty and authenticity that has made him one of America’s greatest actors. It’s a miraculous poerformance in a film full of excellent work.
Howaever at the end of the day this is Ron Howard’s film and his masterpiece. The attention to detail is remarkable, the decision to film everything fresh and use no vintage news reports was smart but also challenged the director. With the fuill co-operation of NASA he made his film, and the results are staggering. It is rare that I call a film a great American film and include in that emotipon a sense of patriotism, but Apollo 13 isd that sort of film. I got chills at the end of the movie, not because I knew the ending, not because Howard created it with such honesty, but because it portrayed with such humanity. This was 1995’s best film.