Imagine, if you will, a seven year old boy looking out of his bedroom window. His mother asks him what he is doing. He says he is trying to see the flag on the moon. The boy was me, of course, and my biggest regret from childhood is that my parents did not get me out of bed at 04.00 on 20 July 1969 to see the moon landing as it happened. That was the impact of Apollo 11 – an achievement that would seem daunting enough after 50 years of technical progress (particularly in computing), and was the summit of human endeavour at the time.
Of course, there are the conspiracy theories (the 'moon' was an abandoned warehouse in New Jersey), and the politics (the whole thing was put on to show them Russkies a thing or two), but this film is American, and deals with pure, unsullied dreams.
I don't remember Apollo12, and that is part of the story here, too. The film opens with Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), driving to his home with “the last case of champagne” to be had in Houston. A party is in full swing. Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) indicates his intentions for what was then called 'a chick', by demonstrating how a probe attaches the Command Module to the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) – showing exposition can be sexy. Finally, Walter Cronkite announces it is “go for EVA – the Extra-Vehicluar Activity” - which means the astronauts can get out of the Lunar Module (if you don't like acronyms, avoid this film). An awed silence falls until Neil Armstrong delivers his “giant leap” soundbite. It's no miracle Jim tells his wife, Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan), we just decided to go.
Jim is down to command Apollo 14 but when another astronaut falls sick, he and his crew, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) are moved up to Apollo 13. Why did it have to be '13' Marilyn wonders – because it comes after 12, he assures her.
Intensive training is almost jeopardised when Ken is diagnosed as having measles. Jim has to dump his colleague and take back-up Jack Swigert or lose the mission althogether. Can Swigert get up to speed enough to carry out his duties? Early indications aren't hopeful, and add drama to the build-up to the main event. Finally, Apollo 13 blasts off at 13.13 hours, due to enter lunar orbit on April 13. This seems incredible, but is all historically correct, as is Marilyn Lovell's 'bad omen' of losing her wedding ring in a motel shower.
Jack Swigert manages to do that thing with the probe (more fake drama, in fact, because if Swigert had failed, either Lovell or Haise could have done it) and they are on the way to the moon. All goes well. Marilyn is shocked to find, however, that TV networks aren't running the astronauts' broadcasts because going to the moon has lost its news value.
Everything changes abruptly when Swigert, asked to perform a routine task of stirring oxygen tanks (to prevent the liquid settling into layers of differing density), inadvertently triggers an explosion that rips off part of the spacecraft and sends the men reeling through space out of control.
Now the battle for the astronauts' lives begins, headed by Gene Krantz (Ed Harris) who declares: “Failure is not an option. We never lost an American in space, and we're sure as hell not losing one on my watch.” If this were not a true story, this type of John Wayne posturing would look ridiculous; but it is, and in 1970 posturing still rang true. Richard Nixon could tell Apollo 11 their mission was a reminder of the need to bring peace to earth, while he was busy illegally bombing the hell out of Cambodia. There are earnest discussions about what strategies to adopt, procedures are re-written, a method of giving the crew enough clean air to breathe is cobbled together from bits and pieces, but in the end success or failure hangs on a few amps of electricity the astronauts can use to power up the craft to make a splashdown.
Thank God Ken didn't really have measles, and is able to use the Houston simulator to find the one way in which power can be restored. On Apollo 13 nerves are strained and only Jim's commanding presence stops the crew falling apart (more fake drama to keep the story vivid). It is easy to be flippant but archive news reports illustrate the task the astronauts faced, hitting a trajectory a few degrees wide from the vastness of space.
Finally, the time for re-entry arrives. The crew go into a radio blackout which should last less than three minutes. Three minutes pass and nothing is heard. Four minutes. Five. Six. Then Lovell announces Apollo13 is back in contact. The craft makes a textbook splashdown, and as the module is secured Apollo13 signs off. The crew are brought aboard the USS Iwo Jima (Tom Hanks is greeted by Jim Lovell in a cameo as the ship's captain) as Jim reminisces about those days of pioneering adventure and vision, and wondering if they will ever be recaptured.
Apart from some slight beefing up for dramatic effect, this film does tell the Apollo 13 story faithfully. Performances are excellent and the production values and effects are the very best that could be achieved in the mid-1990's and stand up very well.
Some criticise the film for being a simplistic piece of American triumphalism. While Americans are not noted for being reticent about their nation's achievements, surely here is a case where a little pride is not out of place. Successfully bringing three men home through a totally hostile environment, against unimaginable odds, using technical skills, improvisation, determination and sheer guts and will-power is a real achievement. The story deserved to be told and celebrated, and the film does that in a way which is both technically absorbing and emotionally involving, and does beg the question when will people strive to achieve such a striking goal again.