In the 2000s, one of my favorite review sites to go to was that of “Mr. Cranky”. It was a satirical site (now no longer available), in which the reviews would state how bad the film really was (the highest rated were for films deemed “almost tolerable”). Of the many reviews I had seen, my favorite header came from the review of Apollo 13, which read along the lines of “Spoiler: They survive.”
Yet the fact that we know what will happen does not at all take away from the suspense of the film. Released about a quarter century after the events occurred (and now a quarter of a century after the release), the film still works as a thrilling adventure for those like me who were not alive when three astronauts spent days in space with little to no hope of survival after an unexpected explosion.
The plot is well known to (mostly) every adult. After the success of the moon landing, astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) captains a trip to the moon with fellow astronaut/friend Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and the relatively young Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). Only a couple days into the mission do we get the troubling, immortal line by Hanks: “Houston, we have a problem.”
Upon my umpteenth time of seeing the film, I was surprised to realize how much I took the supporting cast for granted. Take, for example, those at mission control. While the head of the ground team is indeed Gene Kranz (the always irreplaceable Ed Harris), that does not not mean others are unimportant.
You have higher up men like former astronaut Deke Slayton (Chris Ellis) and Henry Hurt (Xander Berkley, one of those actors know for playing guys you always find yourself not liking), but other of the tech guys like that of Sy (played by the wonderfully underrated Clint Howard, brother of the films director Ron). Rounding them out, of course, is Ken (Gary Sinise), who was sidelined for Jack at the last minute due to the fear of him catching the measles.
The same is also applied to those in the astronauts’ personal life. Nowadays, the role of the supportive wife is somewhat mundane, but that does not at all take away from the affectiveness of Kathleen Quinlan as Jim’s wife Marilyn.
It is also worth noting that Ron Howard not only cast his brother Clint, but his late parents as well. His father (Rance Howard) makes a cameo as the Reverend (though I don’t remember him having any lines), yet it is his real life mother, Jean Speegle Howard, who steals the scenes she is in as Jim’s mother, Blanche. “If they could get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy could land it.”
Though I have not done much of the research myself, it has been said that Apollo 13 is rather accurate to what actually happened. This is rather astounding, as many films are known for taking liberties for sometimes actually changing history (such as Braveheart, also released in 1995, and beat Apollo 13 for Best Picture at the Oscars). As I was rewatching, I was looking at someways the film could have taken liberties. In the film, Fred Haise’s wife Mary (Tracy Reiner) is pregnant with their next child (“I have thirty more days till this blast off.”) Imagine if the screenplay (which is based off of a book co written by the real Jim Lovell) decided to add some unneeded melodram, and have her giving birth while daddy was in space. Or if they decided to dive deeper into Jack’s mistake to file his tax return. The point is that they stick to the story and don’t leave room for any outside fluff.
Despite how many times you have seen the film (by now, you should know it is endlessly rewatchable), you may find it surprising at how many countless factors the crew has going against it. Lack of oxygen. Too much Carbon Dioxide (and trying to fit a square peg into a round hole). Lack of sleep. Endless cold. A Typhoon Warning. The angle of reentry. A broken heat shield. Minimal power supply. The problems seem truly endless, and are sprinkled throughout the mission that you really forget at times that they do make it in the end.
One of the lesser known little moments of the film comes in the final moments of the journey. Just as the crew is about to enter the earth’s atmosphere (with their backs to the surface, no less), after Hanks’ character chimes in with “Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege flying with you,” we see the three astronauts for what is the last time before they seem to be nearly engulfed in flames.
What always stuck out to me was we see each astronaut’s final facial expression before the flames surround them. While each character has had their own approach to the idea of space flight (Hanks as the vet, Bacon as the newbie, and Paxton as the “wow, am I lucky to be here, now I just want to go home” type), each of them clearly shows the sense of knowing they will probably die now. It is proof that each of us does react differently in the face of death.
I have always been one who is not a fan of some decisions made by the MPAA rating system. However, I remember being pleasantly surprised when I found out that Apollo 13 is rated PG. There is no sex in the film (one scene with two characters in the shower, but nothing is seen). Aside from the obvious intensity, it is mainly the language (a few S words). Middle school and above are fine with seeing this film (and arguably should).
Recently, I was listening to the Bruce Springsteen song “We take care of our own”. Much of the lyrics (let alone the title) were vibrant in my head when watching this film. Nowadays, we have sad times when those around the world (not just the country) offer support and love (mass shootings, terrorist attacks, etc). It is a clear reminder of the scripture in 1 Corinthians 12, which talks about the body of Christ.
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” – 1 Corinthians 12:26
The film is a sheer reminder that, when we as a body are working together (alone with God, of course), we can encounter any problem.