Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995)

In July of 1969, history was made when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins manned the Apollo 11 space shuttle and touched down upon the moon. During this expedition, fellow astronaut Jim Lovell hosts a house party so they can witness the moment on television themselves. As they’re watching, Lovell tells his wife, Marilyn, that he intends to walk on the moon one day – having previously orbited it in the Apollo 8 spacecraft. Three months later, complications cause Lovell’s crew to fly Apollo 13 instead of the slated 14. It would appear that Lovell’s goal will come to pass sooner than expected.

Naturally, anyone even passingly familiar with the history of the American space program knows that Lovell and his crew will never touch down upon the moon. The story of Apollo 13 brings to mind the many instances throughout history in which explorers pursued their ambitions only to never see their journey through to the end. Ferdinand Magellan’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe came to an abrupt end in the Philippines, Henry Hudson’s crew mutinied on him, and neither Percy Fawcett nor his son were never seen again after departing for South America.

With space being labeled the final frontier, this is a story that brought the evolution of exploration to its logical conclusion. What kinds of problems would arise from interstellar travel? NASA learned of the immense difficulties on their quest to place a human on the moon long before the launch of Apollo 11 during the ill-fated Apollo 1 mission. The first crewed mission that would touch down upon the moon ended before it began when a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal killed all three members onboard: Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee. That the surviving personnel continued with this project knowing full well the consequences is a true testament to their bravery.

With the Apollo 11 mission a success, Lovell seeks to following in the footsteps of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. What I like about the setup for this mission is that it delves into how Lovell’s family feels about his brave undertaking. Even if Apollo 11 proved the possibility of sending a human to the moon, the mortality rate – particularly with the technology available at the time – was extremely high.  Marilyn is shown to have a nightmare wherein her husband’s shuttle decompresses shortly after takeoff, killing them all. Amusingly, while this is going on, Lovell’s teenage daughter is more concerned over The Beatles’ breakup, brooding about it several days after the fact.

In a very roundabout fashion, Apollo 13 brings to mind Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which had been released two years prior. Obviously, the two films are worlds apart in terms of subject matter, yet they do very similar things in order to make this story more believable to a mass audience. Anyone who thought someone as monstrous as Ralph Fiennes’s depiction of SS functionary Amon Göth couldn’t possibly exist was in for a shock when it they cracked open a history book. They would learn the genuine article committed atrocities so heinous that Mr. Spielberg had to tone him down in order to ensure an “R” rating.

Now, as a biographical feature, Apollo 13 does take some creative liberties with reality. The real Lovell never hosted a dinner party to celebrate the Apollo 11 mission; he was at mission control, being Neil Armstrong’s backup. The real Lovell also pointed out when seeing the film that you don’t aim for where the moon currently is, but rather its future location when the shuttle arrives. This change was made simply so it would make a better shot in the film. When the mission eventually goes awry, a lot of drama is created when Ken Mattingly, due to an exposure to the measles, is taken off the flight. The film shows Mission Control rushing to his house when he was actually there the entire time.

However, the starkest similarity between Apollo 13 and Schindler’s List occurs whenever you feel something was obviously made up to make the story more dramatic. You then later learn that when it comes to theatrics, Hollywood has absolutely nothing on real life. Marilyn’s nightmare about her husband dying seems like an onscreen representation of the real fears and anxieties one would have after their loved one pursues a dangerous undertaking, yet it was based on a dream she actually had. There is also a foreboding scene in which Marilyn loses her wedding ring down a shower drain. The scene is somewhat exaggerated because the real Marilyn was able to retrieve it, but it did happen.

The expedition takes turn for the worse when Mission Control reads a quadruple failure for the oxygen tanks. This happened exactly as it did in real life, and when a member runs the numbers, they know the computers aren’t malfunctioning. What I found to be the most interesting liberty is that Mission Control is shown to come up with a plan to fix the air filters through quick thinking and clever improvising. In real life, the solution was thought up by a single man while driving to work.  Finally, when the spacecraft reenters Earth’s atmosphere, there is a radio blackout for four minutes. No surviving crew had ever successfully come back after a three-minute blackout, so the fact that the real-life version lasted for six minutes would seem absurd even by Hollywood’s standards. It’s a given that biographical features aren’t going to line up with reality no matter how hard the creators try, yet there’s a strange sense of honesty when they tone things down to sell people on these premises that the opposite approach does not confer. Jack Swigert, one of three astronauts onboard Apollo 13 even committed in an interview after the fact that had NASA handed them a scenario exactly like this during training, everyone would have deemed it unrealistic.

Ultimately though, what I particularly admire about Apollo 13 is how it deals with the concept of failure. In the end, Lovell never gets to carry out his dream to walk on the moon. The shuttle flying by the moon is a bittersweet moment – to have one’s goal so close, yet so far is very demoralizing. The film seems to make the case that your dreams might not always come true. You still have to deal with things suddenly going wrong and ruining them. Even so, it’s not the end of the world if things don’t turn out exactly as you wanted it. Much like Lovell and his crew, you have to play with the cards life deals you and do what you can to survive and build yourself up from there.

In a lot of ways, Apollo 13 could be considered Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot only updated to an interstellar setting. The biggest difference is that there are no antagonistic forces to speak of present in Apollo 13 – the entire incident brought about due to equipment failures and other accidents. However, they’re similar in that they are tales of survival in situations greatly isolated from the rest of civilization. Indeed, even knowing that things will turn out well for the crew doesn’t make the scenes in Apollo 13 any less tense. There are many interesting stories to tell about the Space Race, and this is absolutely one that’s worth looking into.

Final Score: 7/10

12 thoughts on “Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995)

  1. This one really reminds me of my childhood. An excellent movie for sure. I didn’t know they had to “tone down” what actually happened, though I’ve heard of that happening in other movies. One of the things I like about history is how much stranger it can be than fiction. The real-life instances of bravery and sacrifice you can find in the astronauts’ and cosmonauts’ stories are amazing, including those that end in failure and even death (see Vladimir Komarov for a sad but inspiring example of one of these.)

    I also remember Tom Hanks co-producing (I think?) a TV series a bit later on about the entire history of the Space Race from the US perspective. Pretty sure it was good, though I saw it back when I was still really into the whole astronaut thing, so that’s probably affecting my memory of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I’m fairly certain I saw this film for the first time back in the 1990s. I don’t remember if I saw it in theaters or not, but I remember really admiring it back when I saw it. And yes, they had to water things down to make it more believable. There’s a strange sense of honesty whenever a film has to do that. It’s because fiction generally has to make sense; reality has no such obligations. If someone wrote a story exactly like real life, most people would consider it poorly written. I heard of the tragic tale of Vladimir Komarov; he knew he was headed for a horrific death and asked for an open-casket funeral so his government would be forced to see what they had done. It’s quite a story, alright. Yuri Gagarin’s sacrifice to guide a downed plane to save a village is another incredible one.

      That does sound like something I’ve heard of. I can’t quite remember what it was called, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review. I’m a huge enthusiast of the Apollo missions and the history of America’s space programme I’d been enjoying the plethora of documentaries and rewatch of the ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ HBO series. I’ve always enjoyed Howard’s ‘Apollo 13’ which as you point out does take some creative liberties, only to be expected in any film adaptation of real events, but they arguably serve to make the film more entertaining. Definitely need to revisit this soon, along with ‘The Right Stuff’.

    Liked by 1 person

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