The Apollo 13 mission is one of the most infamous ventures in the history of space travel. Launching on April 11, 1970, the astronaut trio of Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise set out on a lunar exploration assignment. However, a disastrous oxygen tank malfunction on April 13 forced the three men to forfeit their chances of ever reaching the moon, and fight for their very lives on a minute-by-minute basis. Assisted by the full force of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration back on Earth, the Apollo 13 crew was safely delivered back to the planet’s surface on April 17 – but not without a great deal of physical, mental, and emotional turmoil over the course of that four-day period. Lovell, the commander of the mission, eventually wrote a book about this entire ordeal with 1994’s “Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13.” This piece of literature would serve as the foundation for director Ron Howard’s 1995 film “Apollo 13,” with an adapted screenplay penned by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert. Starring Tom Hanks as Lovell, Bill Paxton as Haise, and Kevin Bacon as Swigert, this feature garnered a total of 9 Oscar nominations – including Best Picture – and took home the prize in the categories of Best Sound and Best Film Editing. As we approach the 25th anniversary of this film’s original June 13, 1995 theatrical release, it is time to examine just what makes Howard’s motion picture so remarkable on many levels.
Even in the midst of a grand, cosmic enterprise of this nature, the story of the Apollo 13 mission is, at its core, extremely personal, intimate, and human. The relationships and camaraderie among the crew are what provide the emotional backbone for this breathtaking narrative. When a filmmaker assembles a cast like Hanks, Paxton, and Bacon, three of the more charismatic individuals in recent film history, it is no surprise that the audience is delivered palpable, affective, visceral feelings throughout the film. In the midst of a terrifying crisis of life-or-death stakes, this central triumvirate of performances draws the viewer into every frame. Still, it was the superb supporting cast that received recognition by The Academy. Ed Harris earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as Gene Kranz, the NASA Flight Director back on the ground at Mission Control. The enormous weight of responsibility on this man’s shoulders is portrayed with stunning credibility by Harris. Furthermore, Kathleen Quinlan received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work as Marilyn Lovell, the wife of Jim Lovell. As a loving spouse back home, thousands of miles away from her husband, one can imagine the immense burdens of stress and anxiety in this uncontrollable situation. Quinlan’s Oscar nod was well-deserved, and her performance adds yet another supplementary tier of nuance and depth to the deep well of humanity and personality found in the story.
The Production Design and Cinematography
The lengths to which the filmmakers went to create a bona fide zero-gravity filming environment are beyond belief. Using a KC-135 jet, flying in a parabolic pattern, the zero-gravity space scenes from the movie were almost completely practical, short of legitimately traveling to outer space of course. Each weightless scene was filmed in 25-second stretches, captured by Director of Photography Dean Cundey with immaculate dexterity. The art direction and set decoration crew, led by Oscar nominees Michael Corenblith and Merideth Boswell, created astounding framework for Cundey’s efforts to shine. The nerve-wracking claustrophia reaches such distressing heights that audience members themselves struggle to catch a breath. Additionally, the movie’s recreation of NASA Mission Control in Houston, Texas is extremely detailed and wholly convincing. The images of long banks of computers and assorted technological instruments, along with dozens of acting extras, are nearly indiscernible in comparison to the real-life setting. This obsessive devotion to technical and mechanical accuracy is admirable.
The Score and Sound Design
James Horner’s Oscar-nominated musical score ranges from hopeful, majestic, and grandiose, to chaotic, agitated, and apprehensive. The array of emotions experienced by the characters in the narrative and the viewer of the film are complemented by Horner’s phenomenal adaptability. This is all reinforced by the Oscar-winning sound design, courtesy of Rick Dior, Steve Pederson, Scott Millan, and David MacMillan. From the staggering roar of the initial shuttle launch, to the sudden, gut-wrenching hiss of an oxygen tank exploding outwardly from the capsule in space, to the cacophonic shudders and rattles of the atmospheric reentry scene, the seamless blend of sound mixing and editing is riveting. Maximum audible potency is obtained in the masterclass of cinematic sound that is “Apollo 13.”
The perspective of the narrative constantly changes from the crew in the space capsule, to the Mission Control team in Houston, to the astronauts’ families and loved ones back home. These parallel story lines are consistently in motion, and the decisions made in space have a ripple effect on the reactions back on Earth, and vice versa. The weight of every moment and each crucial instance of judgment is depicted with impeccable proficiency by editors Dan Hanley and Mike Hill. What could have become a tangled, convoluted web of interconnected storylines was instead balanced beautifully, with steady focus and respect paid to each point-of-view in the film. The ultimate outcome of the mission, with the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronaut squad, was truly a team effort. This reality was displayed with a sublime production effort from Hanley and Hill, resulting in an Oscar victory for Best Editing.
Although the success of a film production requires thousands of men and women in various roles to be at the top of their game, the project needs a mission commander to direct the endeavor. In this case, Ron Howard was undoubtedly up to the challenge. Each element of this film, on the planes of both technical filmmaking and narrative storytelling, harmonizes to formulate a symphonic tour de force of silver screen art. It was Howard who ensured that every mechanism of this complicated machine was well-oiled and up to quality standards. In the words of Howard, “Nobody wanted to let this story down.” A quarter-century after this motion picture’s distribution, cinephiles everywhere hold the film and Howard himself in high-esteem for their achievements.