An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Apollo 13 (1995)

Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon and Tom Hanks as Apollo 13 astronauts Fred Haise, Jack Swigert and Jim Love

Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon and Tom Hanks as Apollo 13 astronauts Fred Haise, Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell, Photo: Universal - Credit: Archant

Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different

Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as the crew of Apollo 13 watching their spacecraft freeze up.

Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as the crew of Apollo 13 watching their spacecraft freeze up. Photo: Universal - Credit: Archant

Apollo 13; dir: Ron Howard; starring: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan. Cert: PG (1995)

One of the drawbacks of doing a true-life drama is that everyone knows how the story ends. But, to create a true-life drama that grips its audience throughout, even though, they know the ending, is a work of a master film-maker.

Apollo 13 is a brilliant piece of heroic, feelgood film-making and Ron Howard, Richie Cunningham off Happy Days and the man who gave us that glorious confection Splash, demonstrates that he has been unfairly overlooked as a true cinematic talent.

Ed Harris as flight director Gene Kreanz celebrating the safe return of Apollo 13. Photo: Universal

Ed Harris as flight director Gene Kreanz celebrating the safe return of Apollo 13. Photo: Universal - Credit: Archant

Ron Howard’s movie works as a piece of docu-drama because he never allows any thing or anyone to be bigger than the material. It’s a stunning story and he knows that he doesn’t have provide a soap opera sub-plot to keep his audience’s interest.


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For those unfamiliar with the ill-fated moon mission. Apollo 13 blasted off from Cape Kennedy in early 1970, on what, at the time, was considered a routine mission to the moon. It had been less than a year since Neil Armstrong took that giant leap for mankind, and now space travel was quickly being considered an everyday occurance.

What happened a couple days into the mission was not an everyday occurance. A massive explosion in the command module’s oxygen tanks had turned a routine space flight into a real life and death struggle.

Ron Howard with stars Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon on the set of Apollo 13. Photo:Universa

Ron Howard with stars Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon on the set of Apollo 13. Photo:Universal - Credit: Archant

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The millions of television viewers who ignored the blast-off coverage and the initial broadcasts from the capsule now sat glued to their sets waiting for news of the stranded astronauts.

Like many great movies Apollo 13 benefits from being an ensemble movie. It’s a film filled with star-names, Tom Hanks and Ed Harris are particularly good, but the camera never lingers on one person for too long. The other ace up the film’s sleeve is its attention to detail. It’s a film that wears its research lightly but Ron Howard has made 1970 another character in the film.

Nothing is overplayed or overdone but he has created an authentic looking post-60s world on screen, from the music, to the clothes, to the technology, nothing is out of place. Artiface is kept to a minimum. You feel as if you are looking back in time.

If the visuals and acting are top notch, then that’s only because they are having to live up to a tremendous script adapted from mission commander Jim Lovell’s best-selling book Lost Moon. Most science fiction movies are shrouded in a haze of showy special effects which are destined to distract the audience from plot holes and provide a cinematic sugar-rush to keep everyone on the edge of their seats.

Apollo 13 doesn’t need this. This is a movie about tension and the art of suspense. Even though we know how the story turns out, Ron Howard manages a minor miracle by getting us to feel that perhaps, this time, they won’t make it home.

He has pain-stakingly built the Apollo capsule so we are trapped with the crew, Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, played by Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon, 200,000 miles from home, with oxygen running out, carbon dioxide levels rising, power sources shut down, condensation building up and temperature falling, every detail is a matter of life and death, every decision possibly fatal. The tension, at times is almost unbearable.

Howard cuts back and forth between the crippled spacecraft and an unncannily accurate mission control ruled over by flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris). It is here that we truly realise how serious their situation is as they have to improvise a way to get these astronauts home.

They not only have to turn the spacecraft around but they have to invent a way to keep the air clean so they don’t suffocate and if that wasn’t enough they have to make sure that when they get back into the Earth’s atmosphere, the angle of descent is right so they don’t bounce off into space. And then they need to cross their fingers that the heat shield isn’t damaged or they will burn up on re-entry.

Apollo 13 is a long movie, clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, but it never feels long. In fact, time stands still, as you watch the hapless back-up crew member, Ken Mattingly, played Gary Sinise, working through sequences of procedures to save enough power to get his buddies home.

Further tension and context is provided by Kathleen Quinlan as Jim Lovell’s wife, who heroically tries to keep everything to together, for her young family, while battling NASA for information and struggling to keep the news crews off her lawn.

Apollo 13 is a feelgood movie about bravery, ingenuity, creativity, about the pioneering spirit, science and the thrill of discovery. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s Ron Howard’s masterpiece.

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