A Successful Failure: Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995)
In the mid-2000s, my parents built a home theater in our living room. It was exciting to have the best sound on a projector. And my dad got an HD-DVD player. Remember those? They had a red case to complement the blue blu-ray cases. Our first HD disc (and I think our last because we quickly realized blu-ray would champion over HD) was Apollo 13. The Ron Howard space adventure was a major Mathur family 1990s favorite (along with Twister and Independence Day). For a long time after getting the home theater, we would show Apollo 13 to our guests. Not the full movie, mind you. Just the famous take-off scene. Volume raised so high our hanging wine glasses would tremble. We could feel the sound in the floor. The room shook, and as the rocket bounded into the sky, we took off along with it.
Ron Howard wanted Apollo 13 to be as realistic as possible. He consulted with NASA, getting permission to film in a Boeing KC-135 aircraft to recreate weightlessness of space. I cannot confirm how true to life or scientifically accurate the film is. I’m sure Howard and his crew had to take cinematic liberties for dramatic or pragmatic reasons. It doesn’t really matter, however. Apollo 13 feels authentic and lived-in. The science is plausible, the characters are grounded, and the music is thrilling. One could argue that Apollo 13 is a perfect example of a four-quadrant blockbuster. It’s not dumbed down or gratuitously gritty or scary. It’s exciting and suspenseful, but family-friendly. Nowadays a movie like this that’s rated PG is virtually unheard of. It’s polished, sure, but doesn’t feel manufactured by a corporation.
I’m not a fan of the phrase “they don’t make them like they used to.” Apollo 13 is the kind of blockbuster that is all rare nowadays (though not impossible to find). A lot of big action movies these days are noisy and inconsequential. This film, however, keeps itself in check because it’s about a group of good people trying to do the right thing. It’s a story about survival. About dreams unfulfilled. About the tense moments of radio silence, where whole lives could be destroyed. Failure isn’t an option, and everyone has to step up and play their role. Apollo 13 is an earnest film, and an inspiring film.
Ron Howard assembles such an amazing cast. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, the late Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, Gary Sinise. Just wow. Ed Harris and Kathleen Quinlan earned Oscar nominations in the supporting categories, and the nods were well deserved. The trio of Hanks, Bacon, and Paxton is hard to beat. They work well together as actors, and by most accounts play their characters accurately to the real life astronauts. I also want to give a shout-out to Tracy Reiner as Paxton’s on-screen wife. I’ve seen that takeoff sequence a million times. Howard captures both she and Quinlan watching and comforting each other. Quinlan looks on in awe, and Reiner just breaks down in tears. As breathtaking and epic that scene is, Reiner’s heartbreaking performance in the scene is the most memorable part for me. It’s a beautiful humanist touch that sets up the stakes for the rest of the film.
Apollo 13 was well-received by critics, and it was a massive financial success. The film was nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Picture, and won for Best Sound and Best Editing. Apollo 13 was really popular at the time, and remains a staple for cable channels. Modern space movies like Interstellar, The Martian, Gravity, owe much to it. Even if those films are not as focused on precisely documenting the science of space travel, their humanist, “good people doing good” aesthetic can be traced to Howard’s film. While Apollo 13 isn’t necessarily a film I rewatch too often, it does hold a special place in my heart for all those times watching it as a kid. It’s an enduring film that contributed much to modern blockbuster filmmaking.