One of the more fascinating aspects of the Cold War was the space race. The United States and the Soviet Union competed for years to see who could achieve various first in their spaceflight capabilities. This race began with ballistic missiles and nuclear arms races that followed World War II, but since they were both developing rockets for these weapons, they figured they’d also take on a more symbolic competition. Although the USSR achieved several spaceflight milestones first, including the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and the first manned spaceflight, the United States made it to the moon first.
After Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11 became the first human to ever walk on the moon, the USSR eventually cancelled their own lunar landing missions and concentrated on Earth orbital space stations instead. Since then, despite the continued rivalry between the USA and Russia, their space programs work more cooperatively.
The Space Race origins can be traced back to Germany back in the 1930’s, but that’s not what this blog post is about. We’re looking at the docudrama film, Apollo 13, based on the 3rd attempt to land on the moon. They aborted the moon landing mid-flight because of an explosion on the space craft. The mission then became a race against time to bring the astronauts home safely. The movie doesn’t mention this, but Apollo 13 also happens to hold the record for the furthest a manned spacecraft has ever been from Earth, at 248,655 miles (400,171 km). The movie released in 1995, a couple months after the 25th anniversary of the actual Apollo 13 launch.
Director Ron Howard decided early on that the movie would consist of only original shots, and that no mission footage would be used. They worked along with NASA to make sure all of the restored equipment was as authentic as possible, with the spacecraft interiors built by the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center museum. Two original Lunar Modules and command modules were constructed for filming, with different sections being removable to make filming easier. They also built interior models that they could fit into a Boeing KC-135 reduced gravity aircraft to directly simulate weightlessness. The suits the cast wore were exact replicas of the Apollo astronauts, right down to being airtight with cooling air pumps.
The real Mission Control Center offered the film crew to use their actual control rooms for filming, but Howard declined, instead making his own replica from scratch. The actors on set could communicate with actual private audio loops, just like the real mission control. One NASA employee, who acted as a consultant on the film, said that the set was so realistic that he would leave at the end of the day looking for an elevator, before remembering he wasn’t in the real mission control.
Apollo 13 enjoys a star-studded cast, with Tom Hanks portraying the Apollo 13 commander, Jim Lovell. The real Lovell had been shopping around movie rights before his Lost Moon book was even written, and he initially wanted Kevin Costner to play him. However, by the time Howard acquired the director’s chair, Lovell learned that Hanks was very interested in doing an Apollo 13 film. When Hanks learned a script was being passed around, he had it sent to him.
Kevin Bacon plays Jack Swigert, a backup Command Module pilot eventually moved up to the main mission after Ken Mattingly (played by Gary Sinise) was exposed to the measles. Mattingly never got the measles, but he was instrumental in helping Mission Control bringing the Apollo 13 crew home. He also flew on Apollo 16, where he also took film from outside the space craft on the way back to Earth. Ed Harris plays Flight Director Gene Kranz, and he described the film as “cramming for a final exam.” It’s also worth noting that the real Jim Lovell appeared in the film as a captain of the recovery ship, USS Iwo Jima.
Pretty much the entire cast put a lot of effort into the film. They studied audiotapes from the actual mission, reviewed hundreds of NASA transcripts, and attended a crash course in physics. Astronaut Dave Scott, who acted as a technological consultant, was impressed with them. He stated that each actor was determined to make every scene technically correct, word for word.
Jim Lovell and his wife, Marilyn, recorded a commentary track for the movie, available on pretty much every physical release since the 10th anniversary DVD. That commentary track is fascinating on its own, sharing how accurate the movie was, while also talking about the minor embellishments the film made for dramatic purposes. For example, the scene where Marilyn lost her wedding ring in the shower actually happened. It wasn’t just put in the movie for dramatic effect. Although in real life, she was able to retrieve it later.
The movie earned $355 million worldwide on a $52 million budget, making it an easy success. It earned a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 8.2/10. Roger Ebert praised the film, saying “A powerful story, one of the year’s best films, told with great clarity and remarkable technical detail, and acted without pumped-up histrionics.” The Rolling Stone’s review commented “Howard lays off the manipulation to tell the true story of the near-fatal 1970 Apollo 13 mission in painstaking and lively detail. It’s easily Howard’s best film.”
Marilyn praised Kathleen Quinlan’s portrayal of her in particular, stating she could feel what Quinlan’s character portrayal was going through, and she clearly remembered how she actually felt in her mind during the mission.
The movie also received nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture (lost to Braveheart), Best Visuals (lost to Babe) and multiple acting awards. It ended up winning Best Film Editing and Best Sound. It also won the BAFTAS for Outstanding Achievement in Special Visual Effects and Best Production Design, Best Dramatic Presentation at the Hugo Awards, and multiple acting awards at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Apollo 13 deserves the praise and recognition it gets. The movie does a fantastic job at portraying a very dramatic event in space travel history. It perfectly captures how pretty much the entire world got wrapped up in the story of what was eventually deemed “the successful failure”. All of the actors do a brilliant job of portraying their roles, whether it be the astronauts, the engineers back in Huston, or their families back home. It’s educational about the actual space missions of the time, without feeling like edutainment. As much as the CGI is clearly dated, there isn’t all that much of it, and the practical effects are still top-notch.
If you haven’t seen Apollo 13, you really should. Even if it weren’t based on a true story, it’s still a fantastic drama about space travel. It’s inspiring, it’s very well paced, and there’s just the right amount of comedy to break up the serious nature of the story. But the fact that it’s a very accurate portrayal of an actual event only makes it better. Oh, and in case you were curious, the movie looks fantastic in its 4K transfer (even if it further exposes how dated the CGI is).
I’ve got a couple possible options for my third movie of the month. I could keep with this space theme and go for October Sky. I could watch Catch Me If You Can, based on a young fraudster who stole millions of dollars before he was 19, and his only motivation was to get his parents back together. I could see Schindler’s List, which I’ve actually never seen, but I’ve been meaning to see for a while. Whichever of those three movies I pick, I’m ending this month with James Cameron’s Titanic, a movie I haven’t seen in over 10 years.