Few endeavors define American exceptionalism as clearly as the space race. Imbued by President John F. Kennedy’s optimistic challenge to the Soviet Union, not only to explore, but also conquer the farthest reaches of our solar system; the commitment only solidified with the untimely assassination in 1963 of its most ardent proponent, and framed by one of the nation’s most turbulent decades of socio-political upheaval and change; the prospect of putting a man on the moon seemingly the sci-fi stuff of Carl Sagan and Stanley Kubrick; by 1969, America had beat out the competition, landing Apollo 11 on the moon. In that momentous instance of ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ America created the template for standardized exploration of outer space; and this, in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds and a hellish ‘test flight’ command module gone horribly wrong, incinerating Apollo I astronauts, Virgil I. ‘Gus’ Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee.
Today, we have mostly mislaid our excitement for interplanetary exploration; regrettably, also our blind admiration for this particular brand of gutsy human resolve – nee, heroism – required to assail the future into the present: mankind’s meager grasp at the infinite. With NASA’s shuttle program in mothballs and America’s dedication to the stars presumably an ambition from our ‘quaintly’ modern past, the prospect of telling legitimate stories on film about those heady early years of gestation veer between mildly ironic and grotesquely archaic. How does one turn back the clock? Perhaps, by illustrating the point; that despite all cinematic evidence to the contrary and Hollywood’s verve to homogenize this supremely ‘human’ endeavor and accomplishment as mere dramatic fantasias (everything from Star Wars, 1977 to Interstellar 2014) there is, decidedly, nothing ‘routine’ about catapulting into the farthest regions of the galaxy. Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995) attains a level of legitimacy primarily because it eschews the histrionics of cheaply sentimental melodrama, despite its bombastic James Horner score (abounding in orchestral swells of flag-waving patriotism); also, because it extol the virtues rather than the vices of an aborted lunar mission; an odyssey that became an ordeal so easily misconstrued as failure, yet, ultimately one of the most triumphant moments in American ingenuity.
In hindsight, Apollo 13 is so clearly infused with a directorial passion for those early years. Ron Howard’s fortitude was always, not simply to recreate and/or document this grand misshapen experiment, but also will into existence a living testament of that epoch in space exploration, typifying an inimitable spirit of uniquely American blind-eyed courageousness that brought forth victory from the chaos. Initially inspired by ‘Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13’, a chronicle co-authored by astronaut, Jim Lovell and award-winning Time Magazine writer, Jeffrey Kluger; Howard’s original concept, and indeed, that of his screenwriter, William Broyles, had been to tell the story of this fateful mission exclusively from the perspective of the three men who experienced it firsthand. A fact-finding visit to Lovell’s home, accompanied by actor, Tom Hanks, would expand on this premise; Howard and Hanks gaining new insight from Jim wife, Marilyn; Howard electing in the final draft to tell three connecting stories as one: the human tragedy unfolding in space, the familial saga rocking the Lovell home, and the race-against-time facing mission control to devise a safe return for their beleaguered aeronautic crew. Along the way, screenwriter, Al Reinert was brought in to refine the particulars. From the outset, Howard had sought Tom Hanks as his ‘star’ – an unlikely choice given Hanks’ early career had consisted of small screen light fluff, fantastic and goofy romantic comedies. Indeed, Lovell had expressed casual interests to be immortalized by the likes of Kevin Costner instead whom he felt ‘looked’ more the part. In retrospect, however, Hanks proved the right choice; capable of carrying off the mission with the appropriate merits – expressing nervous intrepidness in the face of staggering odds.
Howard handpicked the rest of his cast from a stellar assemblage of formidable stars: Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as Lovell’s mission-bound compatriots, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert respectively; Gary Sinise as the aborted third member of Apollo 13’s crew, Ken Mattingly - denied his opportunity to partake after being exposed to the measles virus; and Ed Harris, as Gene Kranz, NASA’s stalwart flight director who, when the chips were down, offered his own peerless brand of stern valor, declaring “America has never lost a man in space and it sure as hell isn’t going to on my watch. Failure is not an option.” With so much butch testosterone on tap, Ron Howard’s movie easily could have degenerated into yet another tired tale of America’s yahoo glory days as space cowboys. And yet, in hindsight, the movie’s linchpin is Kathleen Quinlan’s Marilyn Lovell; the actress highly regarded by the lady who lived through the experience; Quinlan anchoring the drama to a sort of intimate all-American family crisis and immediacy, humanizing the sense of interstellar peril as a wife and mother, powerless to reach out to her husband in his hour of need, yet ever-present and determined to see the fate of their mission through – whatever the outcome.
Apollo 13 is immeasurably fortunate to have attained the blessings of Jim and Marilyn Lovell; the couple in awe of Ron Howard’s attention to detail, right down to building an exact replica of Mission Control on the Universal back lot; also, electing to shoot a considerable amount of the interior ‘weightless scenes’ inside a KC-135 ‘reduced gravity’ military aircraft. In all, director, stars and cinematographer, Dean Cundey, would spend a staggering one hundred hours aboard this plane, the actual pilot performing perilous parabola dives, in order to simulate weightlessness while shooting progressed inside the aircraft’s cavernous cargo hold, redressed to resemble the inner cabin of Apollo 13’s Saturn V rocket. Later, close-ups would be photographed back at Universal, the actors slightly bobbing and weaving within frame to seamlessly maintain the illusion of zero gravity under less fanciful conditions.
Even as verisimilitude proved the order of the day, early on Ron Howard made the executive decision not to use any of NASA’s stock footage of the actual blast off; electing to recreate this moment digitally, using models, early CGI effects and composited matte process photography instead. While the sequence ultimately remains one of the movie’s most iconic and gripping, placing the omnipotent camera at impossible angles to capture the sheer scope of the launch, Howard was also quick to embrace a selection of iconic images originally captured photographically by NASA for posterity, replicating these digitally and interpolating them with his re-envisioned bits. Evidently, the CGI was convincing enough to fool even mission control experts hired as consultants on the picture; Howard asked about the ‘vault footage’, later to confess not a single shot had come from NASA’s archives.
NASA’s complicity in the making of Apollo 13 extended to a very gracious offer for Ron Howard to use Mission Control Center, housed on the 2nd and 3rd floors of Building 30 at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Instead, Howard elected to build his own exact replica from scratch, affording him greater latitude with camera angles, employing a mechanically operated boom to maneuver in and out of the complex ‘crowd’ shots. However, Howard took advantage of at least one luxury offered by the military: as the USS Iwo Jima had been scrapped some years before, he employed her sister ship, the USS New Orleans, as the recovery vessel for the splash-landed module. Meanwhile, spacecraft interiors were constructed to exacting specifications by the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center’s Space Works, who had been integral in the restoration of the real Apollo 13’s Command Module. Two individual lunar modules and two command modules were re-built for the movie; each, an exact replica. Co-star, Kevin Bacon would later admit the claustrophobic atmosphere on board, compounded by being physically restrained in air-tight suits and helmets, left him with a queasy sense of unease, mastered only after some personal decompression of his anxieties. It also gave the actor newfound respect for the men who had actually undergone this trial by fire.
Apollo 13 opens with a jubilant aura of celebration as Apollo 11’s lunar landing takes place on July 20, 1969; Ron Howard incorporating a new voice over narration from no less a cultural mandarin than former CBS anchor, Walter Cronkite to summarize the events leading up to this defining moment in American history; a much younger Cronkite, unable to contain his ebullience glimpsed in stock footage heralding Neil Armstrong’s historic imprint on the face of the moon. At the Lovell home, a house party is in full swing. There is, to be sure, reason for optimism. Jim Lovell has been slated for a pending mission to the moon, along with cohorts, Fred Haise and Ken Mattingly. These are heady times, capturing the essence of J.F.K.’s promise to the nation, perhaps, almost lost after Kennedy’s assassination, though now having surpassed even his aspirations. After the party, a slightly inebriated Lovell informs his wife, Marilyn of his unquenchable desire to walk on the moon’s surface. The wait will not be quite so long. For on October 30, 1969, Lovell is quietly informed by his superior, Deke Slayton (Chris Ellis) their mission has been bumped up.
Marilyn is mildly superstitious. It is, after all, Apollo ‘13’ – the historic ‘unluckiness’ of that digit in the back of her mind; an anxiety compounded when her wedding ring slips off in the shower and is lost down the drain; a true incident that both the real Marilyn Lovell and her surrogate in the film prophetically regard as a very bad omen. Indeed, as the days dwindle down to the launch, fate seems to be having its way; Ken Mattingly is denied permission to partake after it is revealed he was inadvertently exposed to the measles. It is a bitter pill to swallow. His replacement, Jack Swigert, lacks Mattingly’s hours in the training module cockpit; a deficit not lost on Lovell, who begrudgingly is forced by Slayton to accept the fact, Ken will not be a part of their mission. Marilyn’s anxieties manifest themselves in a nightmare. Initially, she had elected not to be present for the blast off. But now, she hurries to her husband’s side at Cape Kennedy in a show of support the night before the fateful launch.
On April 15, 1970, Apollo 13 heads for the stars. However, as it climbs toward the outer stratosphere one of its engines prematurely cuts out. Nevertheless, the rocket reaches its orbital objective, charting its third trajectory toward the moon. All systems are go, the crew settling in for an unremarkable three day journey, broadcasting good wishes and images from space, presumably to be broadcast on national television. Lovell and his crew are unaware none of their transmissions are actually being broadcast to the world; NASA publicity man, Henry Hunt (Xander Berkeley) explaining to Marilyn the fickle and blasé nature of network programming. Presumably, the public’s appetite for outer space has cooled to the point where everyone considers such marvels of man-made engineering nothing more than routine. All evidence to the contrary, as Swigert, ordered by Mission Control to stir Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks as part of their ‘housekeeping’ procedures, inadvertently causes one of the tanks to rupture, creating massive damage. ‘Houston…we have a problem!’
Lovell takes notice; Apollo 13 is venting their oxygen supply into outer space. Mission Control aborts the moon landing, ordering the crew to power up their ‘escape craft’ - the Aquarius - for the return home. At Mission Control, Flight Director Gene Kranz aggressively rallies his team of engineers and scientists to come up with a plan. ‘Failure is not an option!’ Controller, John Aaron (Loren Dean) makes a fortuitous decision to bring Mattingly into the process. After all, no one has spent more hours prepping for this mission; such dedication and attention to detail could – and will – prove invaluable in helping to bring everyone home safely. In space, Lovell quietly laments his lost chance to touch the surface of the moon, his regrets turning to genuine concern as Aquarius is running on auxiliary power; the crew subjected to the extreme cold of space. Swigert suspects Mission Control is withholding the cruel fact they are doomed to perish. Animosity mounts as Haise blames Swigert’s inexperience for the incident. But Lovell quashes their heated debate. Now is not the time to be pulled apart but to stand united and tall in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity.
As carbon dioxide levels rise to near lethal levels, NASA’s engineering team devises a way to adapt the command module's square filters in the lunar module's round receptacles. As Aquarius’s guidance systems are shut down, Lovell does some quick calculations, making a difficult but vital alteration to their flight plan. It will prove their salvation, manually igniting the lunar module’s engines. Mattingly and Aaron transmit their solution to the problems facing Apollo 13’s crew. Swigert transfers Aquarius’ auxiliary power to the command module; the service module jettisoned to reveal the true extent of the damage. Will Apollo 13 be able to reenter the earth’s atmosphere without bursting into flames? Debatable. Momentarily losing radio contact, everyone at Mission Control holds their breath; Marilyn nervously observing from the visitor’s gallery as tensions in the command center mount with each excruciating second of silence; the vacuum broken when Lovell is heard over the airwaves, transmitting their successful splash down in the Pacific Ocean; the craft retrieved by the USS Iwo Jima. While Lovell and his team are given their justly due hero’s welcome, Walter Cronkite narrates the events that would follow, including an investigation into the explosion, and, a brief summary of each man’s subsequent career, concluding with Lovell’s careworn, yet clear-eyed and, as yet unfulfilled prospects for man’s return to the moon.
As Gene Roddenberry so eloquently put it, space is the ‘final frontier’. Apollo 13 resonates as a lovingly assembled snapshot of Americana, torn from a particularly turbulent decade buffeted by socio/political upheavals; a sort of ‘cap’ on President Kennedy’s optimistic promise to explore the uncharted reaches of the baffling infinite. Of course, the space program would continue for some years afterwards; the shuttle program, with its myriad of triumphs and two unexpected disasters – Challenger (1981) and Columbia (2003) – officially mothballing NASA’s plans for future manned space exploration. Director, Ron Howard has quite obviously invested himself – body, soul and creative energies in totem – to will Apollo 13’s authenticity into existence. While the NASA footage of the actual incident was an obvious ‘starting point’ for his research, Howard’s movie, with its expertly advised and multifaceted viewpoints, manages to fill in the gaps, effectively blurring the lines between fact and fiction.
For some time now, our pop culture and American cinema particularly have been the leading arbitrators of verisimilitude; altering history to fulfill the requirements of artistic license, dramatic arcs and personal agendas; generally, leaving reality far behind, in favor of a good yarn. Those who regard movies as their window onto the world – both past and present – thus have been fed a steady diet of pure pulp masquerading as history and fact. The saga of Apollo 13 requires no such embellishments and, as such, is afforded very little by Ron Howard. He hasn’t made a documentary, per say, so much as a living document of the events as they actually occurred; relying on Broyles and Reinhert’s expertly written screenplay – with just enough technical jargon to excite the space aficionado, though never bore the popcorn-munching novice – and, the camaraderie of Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton to carry the load; also Gary Sinise and Kathleen Quinlan’s separate narrative threads, capably intertwined with the unraveling chronicle in space. It’s a winning combination with never a false chord struck for the purposes of dramatic irony, tension, or forced pathos. The situations are real and the cast plays them ‘straight’, or rather, right down the middle. Indeed, after pre-screening Apollo 13 for the men and women who had lived through its ordeal, Ron Howard was told by Gene Kranz that in years yet to follow, whenever someone sought to research this particular era in space exploration they could readily turn to Apollo 13 with confidence, knowing the truth had been nobly illustrated: very high praise, indeed.
Twenty years later, Apollo 13 thunders onto Blu-ray again, this time in a spiffy new hi-def transfer, scanned at 4K from original 35mm elements. It’s about time! Universal Home Video’s initial offering was a fairly abysmal affair, plagued by aliasing, edge enhancement, artificial sharpening, digitized smearing and a decided ‘video-based’ appearance. All these unsightly manipulations are absent herein. What is left to admire is a digital transfer that perfectly recreates the tangibility of a celluloid-based product. Where to begin in my praise: first, colors: richly saturated and stunning; also contrast; deep velvety blacks and very realistic skin tones. Prepare to be blasted out of your seat by the vibrant reds, whites and blues.
This 1080p transfer captures all of cinematographer, Dean Cundey’s extraordinary visualizations, the ominous green-grey glow of Apollo 13’s powered-down capsule casting its spooky hues across the actor’s faces; the sterile glare of fluorescent-lit Mission Control, and the cozy and enveloping oranges and yellows of the Lovell home. Mercifully, we haven’t been ‘treated’ to a director’s re-conceptualization of his earlier masterwork, transferred to hi-def in digitally color-graded oranges and teals. An aside about this: I am getting fairly tired of older movies finding their way to Blu-ray looking as though they were shot from our present-day epoch, where homogenizing the visual appearance of virtually every movie to mimic all the others has become a sort of ridiculous and idiotic template for how ‘all movies’ should look from now on (Martin Scorsese… are you listening?)
But I digress. Universal’s 20th anniversary Blu-ray of Apollo 13 ought to serve as the poster child for how to remaster vintage catalog in hi-def. Here is a movie that looks like a movie (more to the point, as it did back in 1995); not a heavily processed unreasonable facsimile of something that once belonged to the analog world, now adopting the flavor and texture of a digitally recreated video game. So, prepare to be enthralled with the respectful reproduction of fine details and exemplary grain structure. The results speak for themselves – immaculate and free of age-related dirt and scratches. Wow and thank you! Better still, Universal has subtly reinvented the wheel where the DTS audio is concerned. It’s 5.1, as before, but revealing more subtle nuances in dialogue and effects. Your bass will get a workout during the blast off, but there are some outstanding, if marginally more subtle, Foley effects scattered throughout. These come to life as never before. James Horner’s passionate score, I do confess, will give you goosebumps.
Best of all: Universal has jam-packed this anniversary edition with an insightful roster of extra features, beginning with Apollo 13: Twenty Years Later: A Conversation with Director Ron Howard and Producer Brian Grazer. We also get all of the previously released extras; extensive and comprehensive documentaries on the making of the film and the space program: Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13, and Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond: also, Lucky 13: The Astronaut’s Story, as well as two independently produced audio commentaries, one featuring Ron Howard, the other co-starring Jim and Marilyn Lovell. Bottom line: with the approaching July 4th holiday, I cannot think of a better way to mark the promise and pride of the America that once was – and remains, a grand experiment, than with a screening of Apollo 13. Universal Home Video has finally given us the movie as it should surely satisfy on home video. An unqualified must have/must see experience and Blu-ray release. So gather the neighbors and the kiddies around the tube for the 4th. Let’s all pretend it is April, 11th, 1970 all over again!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)