“Houston ... we have a problem.”
In the annals of understatement, that slight nugget of information passed down to Mission Control from amiable space everyman Tom Hanks, as true-life astronaut Jim Lovell, must rank as one of the all-time greats. I mean, for an astronaut, this is more than just a bad day at the office, dear. Hurtling through space on NASA's ill-fated third lunar-landing mission in April 1970 - when the world was more interested in watching re-runs of I Love Lucy than man blasting off into the void again - a mysterious explosion rocks the fragile ship and pretty soon the lives of the crew, let alone the mission itself, are in jeopardy. For Lovell, whose childhood dream of setting foot on the moon is now obliterated, his craft and crewmates Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) now crippled and adrift in space with power and oxygen leaking perilously away, things look far from peachy. Abandoning the mission is the least of their worries - making it back home again is going to take not only all of their strength, skill and ingenuity but the combined efforts of the desperate NASA staff back at Mission Control. Disaster seems inevitable and only now, when lives are at stake, does the world sit up and take notice. What follows is the gripping story of how triumph is wrenched back from the jaws of tragedy and a true testament to the spirit and resolve of mankind in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It seems bizarre, but even though we all know the outcome, watching Ron Howard's thrilling depiction of those heart-stopping events still has you hooked from the lift-off onwards. Once the jolly space japes have run dry - Paxton's zero-g buffoonery and Bacon's tax confession to the IRS - the icy cold dread of their terrible predicament will have had you palpitating by the eventual splashdown.
“So long, Earth ... catch you on the flipside.”
Taking the thrust of Lovell's recollections from his own memoirs of the same title, Ron Howard wisely refrains from adhering to the strict docu-drama premise that Apollo 13 could so easily have fallen into. Science and problem-solving, not action-man heroics, save the day here. And the temptation to play it by the book and let the boffin-jargon hold sway over the live-or-die scenario up above would have been an easy route to have taken. But then, Howard is one of Hollywood's most sentimental directors and having the effortless, squiggly-haired charm of box office wonderboy Hanks to fall back on when things are in danger of getting too technical, can only serve to heighten the human drama and pep up the sweaty-palm factor. Indeed, it is precisely these two elements - Hanks and Howard - that could have swung the movie deeply into overwrought, emotional tv weepie of the week territory. Thank God then for the presence of Paxton, Bacon and the terrestrial heart of the tale, the awesome Ed Harris as Mission Controller Gene Krantz, to keep the sugar levels from rising too high and the histrionics reeled in. Paxton excels here with a nice, yet understated performance, and the scenes when he is affected by the extreme cold in the module after all heating has died away are genuinely moving. And reassuringly Bacon, as last-minute crew replacement Jack Swigert, retains his usual twinge of untrustworthiness - not his character's you understand, although the film does paint more of a question mark over his pivotal stirring of the oxygen tanks than was the case in reality, but more because we need some kind of cast friction up there. He's the outsider on the team, his guiding hand at the controls eliciting tense scrutiny from his colleagues, but it's a nice touch to see Hanks give up the commander's seat to let him pilot the capsule back in for the fiery finale.
“We've got a wicked shimmy going on up here.”
But it's Harris's no-nonsense determination to get his boys back home that effectively grounds the movie. His indomitable persona commands respect much like his real-life counterpart, and his commitment to the role also provides an unexpected lump in the throat when his gruff, old school approach finally crumbles when the voice he and his staff long to hear eventually comes back on line. The organised chaos of Mission Control and the frantic efforts to come up with answers is at least as riveting as the action up above, especially when former crewmember Ken Mattingly (played by the often-overlooked Gary Sinise) comes back in to determine how much power they can gain from shutting down various systems by scuttling about in a simulator. And Kathleen Quinlan, as anxious wife Marilyn Lovell, takes the largely thankless role and gives it the necessary heart and dignity as she waits in agony for her husband to return, but there is, inevitably I think, a dissipation of tension whenever the scene shifts to the homestead. It is to Howard's credit that he manages to keep the right balance between the domestic element and the far more compelling drama taking place far, far away.
“No American has ever died in space, and they're sure as hell not going to on my watch. Failure is not an option!”
The most compelling moments are also the quietest and most poignant - Mattingly watching the launch alone in the distance, the first glimpse of the damage wrought by the explosion, Marilyn sitting alone beside the bed, all the world's press camped outside whilst she waits for radio silence to end. The slingshot route travelling around the dark side of the moon that takes them over their intended landing site is, perhaps, the most beautifully handled sequence with Lovell choosing to back away from the viewport for fear of watching his lifelong dream glide away from him in silvery silence. This is only marred with the totally unnecessary inclusion of a fantasy moment of Lovell imagining himself walking on the moon and looking back at the Earth. Unfortunately this smacks of a filmmaker thinking purely that an audience has paid to see Tom Hanks walk on the moon and, for me anyway, comes across as a tad gigglesome. But, overall, such narrative deviation is rare and the film makes an awesome stab at authenticity. From the impeccably realistic sets - with condensation raining down on the crew upon re-entry - to the believability of the dialogue, which never oversteps the mark to leave the audience confused or patronised. William Broyles Jnr. and Al Reinert's screenplay makes the jargon actually quite understandable and, obviously, all the more urgent.
It's actually great to view this film now, what with all the Star Wars hype about to descend again -Hurrah for Revenge Of The Sith !! - because, this is a sobering reminder of just far away we are from blissful hyperspeed space travel. Our fledgling first steps into the heavens are always going to be dangerous and, without the courage and skills of such intrepid men as Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert (who passed away in 1982) and all the diligent people back here on terra firma to aid them in their voyages we're never going to reach the stars.
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