Movies That Everyone Should See: “Apollo 13”

With the successful landing of the rover “Curiousity” on Mars this past week, my thoughts have turned to Space and the Space program, and that naturally led me to think of Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13”.

With an emphasis on authenticity and cast laden with Oscar winners and nominees, “Apollo 13” brings to life the nerve-wracking true tale of determination, ingenuity and courage that occurred on the 13th mission of the Apollo program.  

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

President John F Kennedy

In 1970, the Apollo Program was approaching a full decade in existence. Conceived at the end of the Eisenhower administration, the program received funding and began in earnest during the first term of the presidency of John F. Kennedy. When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space on April 12, 1961, Kennedy became determined that the United States be the first country to reach the moon. On May 25th, 1961, six weeks after Gagarin’s flight, Kennedy delivered his famous address to Congress, asking for the committment to go to the moon.

The “Space Race” was underway.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Neil Armstrong

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo program achieved the goal of landing on the moon. Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down in the Sea of Tranquility and set foot on the surface, while Michael Collins remained in orbit. Apollo 12 followed just four months later. Charles “Pete” Conrad and Alan L. Bean set foot on the moon on November 19, 1969. Richard F. Gordon remained in lunar orbit.
Serving as backup crew to the first lunar landing (Apollo 11) were Commander James A. Lovell, Jr., Command Module Pilot William A. Anders, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise, Jr.
Left to right: Jim Lovell, Ken Mattingly, Fred Haise.
Lovell and Haise would get their chance to land on the moon five months later (Anders retired in 1969). With a crew that included Jack Swigert as command module pilot (a last-minute replacement for Ken Mattingly, who had been exposed to measles just a few days prior), Apollo 13 lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 11th, 1970. Their mission was to touch down on the Fra Mauro highlands on the lunar surface.
Two days into their flight, however, damaged wires on the stirring fan inside oxygen tank number 2 short-circuited and ignited their insulation. This led to an explosion of the tank itself.
The explosion of the tank had a domino effect, causing a string of unintended mechanical consequences, most notably resulting in the loss of oxygen to the Command Module. The crew was forced to use the Lunar Module as a “lifeboat”, the mission to touch down on the moon’s surface was aborted, and the next three days became a harrowing ordeal of improvised engineering… with the end goal of bringing the astronauts home alive.
It was a success. All three members of the Apollo 13 crew returned to Earth safely.
Decades later, Jim Lovell hadn’t even begun writing his book “Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13” prior to receiving a bid from Imagine Entertainment for the film rights. His proposal for a manuscript to a publishing company was enough to entice an offer.

“There’s something about the story of getting back home, which is one of the seven great stories of literature. How do you get back home? And that’s what this is.” – Tom Hanks

Ron Howard clearly recalled the mission and the enormous amount of tension surrounding it, so when the project was put before him, he leapt at the chance. He also found an enthusiastic partner in Tom Hanks, who “always wanted to be an astronaut”. He claims to have been saying for years that he wanted to be part of a movie about the mission. At that moment, Hanks was coming off back to back Best Actor Oscars for “Philadelphia” (’93) and “Forrest Gump” (’94). Having him attached to the film immediately gave the project a higher profile.

Howard’s intention was to make the film as technically accurate as possible. He received an extraordinary level of cooperation from NASA, and was able to reference transcripts, recordings and archival footage. They even offered Howard the use of the actual mission control, though Howard decided to construct a replica set. He also had access to members of the Apollo program, including Lovell himself, so the consulting work on this film is unparalleled. They took painstaking efforts to duplicate things exactly and to adhere to the highest standard of factual accuracy. They were tempted initially to use actual archival footage from the liftoff, but chose modern special effects techniques instead due to the disparity in quality between sources.

Their efforts led them to take unprecedented steps, namely shooting in actual zero gravity. The weightless scenes were created by constructing a set inside NASA’s KC-135, a plane which is used to create zero gravity environments by flying in a parabolic arc. Each pass would give the crew approximately 25 seconds of weightlessness. Eventually, close to four hours of footage was shot in this manner, over the course of 612 flights. Shots where the astronauts entire body is shown floating were filmed in zero G. If there were close-ups required, the cast mimed bobbing about while shooting in a more traditional studio set.

Their dedication and faithfulness paid off. “Apollo 13” is a film of unmatched authenticity. It faithfully and realistically recreates the events, equipment, and environments involved. But it also captures the intensity of the human drama.

The movie opens referencing Apollo 1 and Apollo 11, reminding audiences of both the mortal risks involved (the crew of Apollo 1 perished in a tragic fire) and the incredible promise of the program. Lovell (Hanks) and the rest of the backup crew, plus their families, are having a party to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on moon on tv. It establishes the stakes and gives the audience an anchor for their empathy… the family. Although the television networks of America considered the mission routine and initially didn’t cover it, the families were completely invested emotionally from start to finish.

The film’s story begins with the crew’s mission specific training, shows the painful moment when Ken Mattingly was scratched at the last-minute for medical reasons, and then shows the successful launch. After a brief celebratory period once the crew reaches space, things get deadly serious in a hurry when the oxygen tanks get stirred and the malfunction occurs.

Houston, we have a problem.

Once the command module is damaged, the lunar landing is aborted and the mission becomes the safe return of the crew. The film’s intensity skyrockets. The mission control team (led by Ed Harris as Gene Kranz) shifts into high gear attempting to resolve issues as they arise. Frantic calculations are made, and by hand, this being the era of slide rules, pencils and chalkboards. Ken Mattingly is roused from his sleep and brought back in to the simulator to work last-minute procedures.

They faced the challenges of a dissipating oxygen supply, how to steer from the LEM, a power shortfall, the need to make course corrections, how to filter carbon dioxide, and worries over whether the heat shield was still intact and whether or not the parachutes would fire. Through it all, the mission crew and ground crew demonstrate incredible tenacity, nerves of steel, and even physical fortitude. But above all, unshakable resolve and incredible bravery.

And in the end, they were triumphant.

When I first was working on it, I really thought of it as, you know, the story of the guys on the capsule. It still is very much, but, one of the first things that we did once we committed to making the movie was go to Houston, see Mission control, and I realized just how intense it was. How personally they took it. And I began to try to find ways to tell their story, too. – Ron Howard

The film features a tremendous job by cast. Hank’s Jim Lovell has to watch his dreams of stepping on the moon slip through his fingers, and Hanks shows that pain plainly. Kevin Bacon’s Jim Swigert yearns to prove his mettle to the rest of the crew, and Bill Paxton’s Fred Haise demonstrates the physical rigours of the ordeal as he falls ill. On the ground, Harris, Sinise, and others convey the diligent efforts of scores of people who was necessary to safely return the crew. Kathleen Quinlan provides the emotionally chorus as Marilyn Lovell (she and Harris received Academy Award noms for their work here). The cast is backed by exceptional direction by Howard, and a stirring score by James Horner.

It’s a story that contains intense drama inherently, so the filmmakers wisely kept it free of Hollywood histrionics. Instead, they simply tried to portray the actual ordeal that took place from April 11 through April 17, 1970, when the eyes of the world turned to the heavens and prayed for the safe return of the Apollo crew. Three brave explorers who risked their lives and left the safety of Earth in order to go where few had ever been, for the benefit of all mankind.

It’s a story that doesn’t need to be dramatized. “Apollo 13” perfectly captures both the nail biting anxiety of the mission, and the incredible human spirit involved in safely returning Lovell, Swigert and Haise back home.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.  

50 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Apollo 13”

  1. This is one of the greatest movies ever! Each time I see it I’m blown away by the sheer genius of everyone involved. Plus I love seeing how calm, focused, and determined the crew members are; it’s really wonderful to watch. I’m so glad the filmmakers let the drama of the actual situation carry the movie, and kept the real men down-to-earth.

    • Amen. No one goes overboard or overacts or oversells. The situation is scary enough, it doesnt need to be played up.

      You can see the determination of everyone involved, and its so infectious… you cant help but get into this movie when you watch it! 😀

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