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Apollo 13 (1995)

In 1970, the Apollo 13 mission would blast off from Houston. Its destination: the Moon. However, it would never reach its intended landing site, as a chain of events would soon unfold that would endanger not only the mission, but the lives of the three astronauts aboard the Odyssey. It will take the ingenuity of both the imperiled crew and Mission Control back on Earth to bring all of them home safely.

Apollo 13 is a film directed by Ron Howard, based on the real-life near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission, and in particular adapted from Jim Lovell’s book Lost Moon. It stars Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan, Chris Ellis, and Ed Harris.

Jim Lovell (Hanks), a NASA astronaut who orbited the Moon on Apollo 8, knew in 1969 that he wanted to go back. While giving a VIP tour of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly building, he is informed that he and his crew will fly the Apollo 13 mission instead of their planned Apollo 14, and it looks like he will have his chance. After he informs his family of the news, he and his crewmates, Fred Haise (Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Sinise) begin training for the mission. Days before the launch, Mattingly is revealed to have been exposed to German measles, and he is bumped from the flight in favor of backup Command Module pilot Jack Swigert (Bacon). Excitement in NASA is high, even though lunar missions have become commonplace in the media, and Jim’s wife Marilyn (Quinlan) worries about the launch.

The Saturn V rocket launches with a minimum of protests, clearing the tower at 13:13, but during a routine set of maintenance procedures, Swigert flips a switch to stir the two liquid oxygen tanks in the Service Module, unexpectedly causing one of them to explode and the other to start leaking. Mission Control aborts the Moon landing, and the Apollo 13 crew are forced to use the lunar module Aquarius as a lifeboat to stay alive while Mission Control figures out a way to get them home safely.

Ron Howard has certainly risen above his roots as Richie Cunningham, making a name for himself as an accomplished director of heartwarming (and occasionally heartrending) dramas and comedies. He keeps on this path with Apollo 13, taking a historical near-disaster and presenting it as the gripping drama it was. While he was preparing to film Apollo 13, Howard decided not to use stock footage of the original launch, or any other NASA Launch. He reproduced the interiors of the Command Module and Mission Control with exacting detail, even bringing in one of the tech guys from Apollo 16 to make everything look right. The footage of the rocket’s launch was so realistic, in fact, that it fooled the NASA guys who worked on that launch, only distinguishable from historical footage in that there were no cameras at those particular angles. During filming, the actors playing the Apollo 13 crew were filmed in actual weightlessness aboard NASA’s KC-135 reduced gravity aircraft, nicknamed the “Vomit Comet”, which saved a lot of time that would otherwise be devoted to simulating the effects of null gravity.

The acting was also exemplary. Hanks had already established himself as a skilled dramatic actor two years earlier with Philadelphia, and he is bang-on as the terrified astronaut with balls of steel. Bill Paxton also shines as Haise, showing that he can play a wider range than simply obnoxious jerkwads, and Kevin Bacon as Swigert carries himself well as the situation aboard the Odyssey deteriorates. At the Mission Control end, Ed Harris earns the hell out of his paycheck as Gene Krantz, trying to get everybody on both sides thinking about the problem calmly and rationally, even with the threat of losing another crew hanging over his head. Their dialog was taken nearly verbatim from actual transcripts and recordings (the immortal “Houston, we have a problem” line was originally, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” changed because Howard thought the original line implied the problem had passed).

In all, this is yet another example of Ron Howard’s great talent as a director, Tom Hanks’ impressive talent as an actor, and the ways in which real life can be every bit as exciting as fiction. Pick this up sometime if you’re sick of overblow sci fi and want to see how badass the real NASA guys truly are.

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