Ron Howard’s 1995 classic tells the story of Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), the commander of the ill-fated mission Apollo mission to land on the moon, looking at how he and his team dreamed of and prepared for landing on the moon, how their absence affected their families, and how an onboard malfunction put the whole mission in jeopardy, requiring the team of astronauts to use all of their ingenuity and skill to return safely to Earth and to co-ordinate with the hardworking team on the ground below.
This is one of those pesky “films I should’ve seen by now” so when it turned up on Netflix, I decided that it was time to fill that particular gap in my film knowledge. And I’m glad I did because Apollo 13 sure is a mighty fine and impressive film that’s an excellent addition to the filmography of director Ron Howard and for the cast involved.
Looking back, this type of story can seem quite commonplace – a disaster movie of sorts where there’s a mission to accomplish and it’s all fun and games up until a point where everything goes wrong and the characters have to band together in order to get out of their predicament – but overall, this real life tale is proficiently told and it succeeds in being educational, letting us know what happened during the Apollo 13 mission, while also managing to be entertaining, tense and with a strong commitment to giving us well rounded and credible characters. The only real problem is that the film is unavoidably full of technical speak and jargon, so it can be alienating at times, but it never gets too technobabbly and even if you don’t completely comprehend exactly what’s going on, Howard and writers William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert make it easy for us to understand the gist of what’s going on and the strong direction, screenplay and performances keep us invested for most of the time, regardless of the weighty tech speak and the film’s generous runtime.
Howard’s direction is indeed noteworthy because he adroitly infuses the film with plenty of nailbiting drama while also managing to insert a most welcome sense of humour, getting us to smile broadly when the astronauts interact with each other and with their friends and family, he structures the film very well when he switches between the spacecraft, ground control and the scenes that show how the families are being affected at all the right times, so all in all, his direction is strong and assured.
A strong part of Apollo 13 is its core cast and as Jim Lovell, Tom Hanks is as great as you’d expect, effortlessly gives us a perfectly likeable character who has a sense of humour and a lightheated spirit but when push comes to shove, he’s the guy who you’d love to have around during an emergency due to his professionalism, knowledge, leadership skills, and grace under pressure. Alongside, Bill Paxton once again plays the joker of the pack but although he messes around a little bit, he still knows what he’s doing and when things get dire, the confident veneer begins to fade as he struggles with sickness and shows signs of buckling under the strain. Kevin Bacon ably plays the “new guy”, the rookie who has to assimilate into Lovell’s crew and when things go bad, he finds himself as the scapegoat, instantly being blamed for ruining things, but as he provides an invaluable contribution to bringing the craft home, the other guys come to accept him and by the end, he’s truly, endearingly, made a part of the team. Finally, Gary Sinise is very strong as Ken Mattingly, the serious, commited, “work comes first” astronaut who is forced into staying behind on Earth, and Ed Harris, donning an incredibly dope waistcoat, is excellent as Gene Kranz, the man who leads the rescue operation and who won’t accept failure or the loss of the astronauts.
On a technical level, this film still holds up today as the practical effects are accomplished, the production and costume design is authentic and pleasing to look at, and much of the cinematography is really quite lovely. And the cherry on top of the cake is James Horner’s score, which is simply astounding, swelling, gorgeous and epic, masterfully managing to create a sense of awe, spectacle and joy while also being appropriately tense and dramatic in other parts. The man was a maestro.