On April 11, 1970, Apollo 13 launched with the mission of landing on the moon. The three men onboard Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred W. Haise, had trained their whole careers for this. Everything was running according to plan when an oxygen tank ruptured. Not knowing the full extent of the damage, but realizing how much oxygen had been lost, the mission to the moon was aborted. For the next four days, the world watched as NASA worked around the clock to bring their men back to Earth.
The film does not deviate much from the history. Not every little hiccup NASA encountered with Apollo 13 is in the film (it would’ve been way too long), but the major issues are present. To fictionalize the story and make it more Hollywood, there is some focus on the men’s families left on Earth. It’s all perfectly believable and shows the viewer what 1970 looked like. Lovell’s teenage daughter being upset about The Beatles breaking up always made me smile. It also reminds us that as NASA was frantically trying to help their men, all their loved ones could do was wait by a radio or television.
The dangers of space travel are a burden for the entire family. One of the most heartfelt scenes is where Lovell (Hanks) is explaining to his young son how his mission is going work. The boy asks about what happened with a previous mission, where two astronauts where killed. With Mrs. Lovell listening at the door, Jim explains to his son that the door wouldn’t open and concludes with, but they fixed those problems. When the boy is first informed that “something broke on his daddy’s ship” he immediately asks, “Was it the door?”
The family aspect may be what the average viewer is most interested in, but the real meat of the story is exactly what is happening on Apollo 13. The danger is onboard 13 but the drama happens in mission control. When Lovell and his men radio with a problem, it is their job to solve it and time is a matter of life and death.
This is the most intense case of “engineering to the rescue” I’ve ever seen, and I know way too many engineers from my time at Purdue. The astronauts double check their calculations with mission control, men on Earth need to invent something that the men in space can build before their air becomes poisonous and every second counts. The first few big problems solved and averted are intense and leave all viewers taking a deep breath of relief, but as more situations are piled on and on and the engineering is cranked up it becomes muddled. Viewers without a scientific degree may find some things going right over their head, or even worse: be bored.
The big climax boarders on cliché. The music rises and falls, we see all the family members faces, mission control is standing and the world holds their breath for way too long. The viewer may check their watch at this point and as soon as they roll their eyes and stand up to go make a sandwich the climax is released.
That being said, I still enjoy Apollo 13. It is my favorite film by Ron Howard. There’s no excessive slow motion (anti-gravity is cool though), nothing is over-the-top and everything is firmly rooted in reality. It’s a prestigious honor to direct the first film made with the cooperation of NASA and the story of Apollo 13 is not one to just throw together. Howard treats it with the same meticulous care shown by every step in mission control.
Looking back, I’m not sure how Apollo 13 lost the visual effects award to Babe. Yes, those talking animals are done perfectly, but did they miss the whole launch sequence? It was done so well that NASA actually asked to use it for their own videos. Just check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kf5yLuyCTag
Apollo 13 is a film that everyone should see. It may be a little too much science for some, but the story is enough to keep everyone involved. The best part is the spirit of courage and heart for exploration that must be in every astronaut is present. So many people dream of space travel and look to pioneers like Neil Armstrong, why not Jim Lovell?
“So long, Earth. Catch you on the flip side.”