Apollo 13
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Apollo 13

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When I was growing up the space race was just getting started. Beating the Russians to the moon was all that mattered. Large televisions would be rolled into the classrooms so we could watch the launches of the Mercury and Gemini rockets. These are memories in the collective consciousness of my generation. With the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon the race was over and most of America turned their attention to more important things. In April 1970 when Apollo 13 was set to return to the moon it all seemed anti-climatic, that was until the now famous phrase ‘Huston, we have a problem’. An explosion occurred while going to the moon that nearly resulted in the loss of capsule and crew. All of a sudden the world was riveted on the plight of three men, alone in dark of space, desperately trying to get home. The days that are covered by this film are crystallized in my memory, even now many decades down the road. For such a hallmark moment in human history the cast and crew had a sizable task ahead of them, to give a fair and accurate portrayal of these events, with so many as myself around that remember the events nothing else would do. Fortunately, all involved in this project rose to the occasion. This film embodies the spirit of the American space program, ‘failure is not an option’. In a craft that is composed of literally millions of parts, the concern was not if something would go wrong but what needed to be done when they did. Tom Hanks plays Jim Lovell, the commander of the ill fated craft. It was up to him to make the on the spot decisions to save their lives. But he was not alone; also in his crew were Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and the rookie of the group, Jack Swigert (Keven Bacon). On the ground was a group of men lead by ground controller Gene Krantz (Ed Harris) and an army of scientists and experts with one goal bring them home alive. Problem after problem arose. First there was gaining some control of the craft, keeping the air clean of carbon dioxide, maintaining enough power to actually get back, each problem was critical and dealt with in turn. The scope of the film was not restricted to the men involved; it did not forget the families of the trapped men. Here the main focus was through Marilyn Lovell (Kathleen Quinlan) wife of the commander. Here the film is a true love story, the bravery in this family was not restricted to the man in space, and it was demonstrated by the woman that waited here on Earth.

If you look at the early career of Tom Hanks you might not have predicted that he would attain such a place with dramatic works like this. Sure Hanks can be funny, very funny, but his real talent lies in portraying a character in a sympathetic fashion. The audience can readily identify with his characters, even if we lack a common experience. After all, how many of us were ever in space. Harris was perfect as the somewhat quirky Krantz. Krantz was a man that donned a new, hand made white vest for every mission and held together a group of highly intelligent, high strung men for a single purpose. Harris shows him as a man that would never go to space himself but had pride in bringing his charges back safe and sound. Bacon as Swigert showed us a very human side to these idolized men, the astronauts. Swigert was a last minute replacement, not well known but his other crew members and the man with the least experience. His natural self doubts had to be pushed aside to focus completely on what needed to be done. Quinlan show us a woman that truly loves her man. She know that each time he goes to work he may not come home but his enthusiasm for his job was rubbed off on her. Kathleen Quinlan gives an excellent performance as the worried but always supportive wife of this American hero, Jim Lovell. She shows just how these women that remained on Earth awaiting the return of their men where the unsung heroines of the space program.

Directing this monumental epic was Ron Howard. Howard grew up on television in our homes. He is like an old friend, a person we know and trust. He also is of the same generation as I am, the one enamored of the space program. Howard is able to reach the humanity of any story he tells. Here the focus is not so much on what happened but rather on how the people responded, technically and emotionally. While the men involved had to keep up the façade of professionalism they had deep running emotions and here they seen by the audience. Howard also managed to obtain the use of the NASA training plane called the ‘Vomit Comet’. This is a craft that performs a maneuver that creates a few seconds of weightlessness. All of the film’s weightless scenes where filmed here. So there were no wires, no trick photography, the actors were floating around. Rather than cluttering the movie with side plots Howard remains focused on one thing. This accurately reflects the actual events, the attention of the world collapsed to a single point of concern. He also strove for and got complete authenticity in his sets, dialogue and action. He basically rebuilt the command center, the space craft and even the home details. The people involved in the real drama where brought in to consult, some noted in interviews that they though they stepped off the elevator into the past. A story like this deserved nothing less.

The disc itself is near perfect. The audio is spectacular, in the scene where the rocket takes off the music swells and you find you are holding your breath; the sub woofer goes into over drive so you feel the boosters in your chest. The video is crystal clear and free of any compression defects. The music is wonderful. It grabs you in a visceral manner and keeps you glued to the screen. One of the most interesting features is the commentary provided by Jim and Marilyn Lovell. It’s like having the people that lived this experience there next to you in your living room. This commentary is a piece of history in its own right. With this new anniversary edition you also get the IMAX version of the film in addition to the regular six channel original disc. There is also a featurette, Lost Moon: The Triumph Of Apollo 13 detailing just how close to a tragedy this mission came.  I wanted my daughter to see this film. To those in her generation the space program has for the most part become common place. She has never known a world where man was not in space. This film is a must have.

Posted 3/22/05

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