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The exciting and inspiring Apollo 13 stands out like a beacon of great filmmaking in the career of Ron Howard, a swell-guy Hollywood insider who has consistently directed successful but forgettable movies. Savant stopped watching after the insultingly irrelevant Parenthood, a good match for the hollow hokum of Backdraft. When the source property is good Howard can come up with the occasional interesting show, such as Frost / Nixon. But the norm is A Beautiful Mind, a muddled, pretentious mess -- and Best Picture shoo-in.
But that's just an opinion, and running counter to those personal disappointments is 1995's Apollo 13, a difficult story about a mostly forgotten chapter in the NASA moon missions, when disaster struck and three brave astronauts were almost lost in space. Ron Howard really comes through on this one. Apollo 13 makes the skin-of-their-teeth ordeal so immediate and exciting, most of us wondered why we barely remembered the real event. The screenwriters begin with a nod to the fearsome accident that claimed the lives of three early Apollo astronauts, in a launch pad test. It's dangerous out there, and the successful 11 and 12 missions don't guarantee that something terrible can't happen -- the space program's record of no fatalities in flight is not the norm, especially when compared to the testing of conventional aircraft. Who will fly becomes a point of contention when first choice Alan Shepard flunks a medical. 1 Then Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) is bumped because of the remote possibility that he might come down with the measles. He's replaced by Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon). All of a sudden the mission takes on a vague "movie curse", like those shows about people who just happen to change airplane seats just before the big crash...
Space movies previous to Apollo 13 had been notable non-successes -- Robert Altman's compelling Countdown, the superior The Right Stuff. A semi-realistic fantasy about a potential space disaster was 1969's Marooned, a terrible story that shows three astronauts going crazy, losing their nerve and having crying fits when their spaceship gets stuck in orbit - it's better off forgotten. Apollo 13 tops them all -- even The Right Stuff by presenting its Astronauts as utterly dependable straight-arrows, the kind of guys who like to boast about themselves over beers but are ready to sacrifice themselves should the mission require it. Typical of the movie is when a couple of flyers, aware that Lovell's survival is in doubt, visit his ill mother in a rest home. The average military flier wouldn't have bothered with this, as any pilot takes obvious risks. It's the more family-oriented camaraderie of the space program that prompts this uncommon courtesy. 2
Apollo 13's astronaut heroes are impersonated by a dream cast. Tom Hanks, whose career zigzagged between interesting and forgettable movies, steps up to the plate as a perfect Jim Lovell, the family-man astronaut piloting the mission. Hanks' charm disarms jokes that might seem patronizing but are most likely dialed way down from the banter one would hear from ex-military fliers in 1970. Ex- James Cameron star Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon are nose-to-the-slide rule flying engineers, trained to the nth degree and seemingly capable of re-assembling their spaceship in flight if the need arises. Even more important to the film's theme of teamwork is the astronaut denied his big chance. Gary Sinise conveys Ken Mattingly's primal frustration without blowing his cool. Instead of sulking, he's Johnny-on-the-spot when his expertise is suddenly needed. The irony of Apollo 13 is that the man cheated of a seat to the moon ends up exactly where he's most needed, working on the problem of bringing his comrades home in one piece. In the (only slightly exaggerated) chaos of damage control in Huston, Mattingly's leadership is irreplaceable. Apollo 13 makes audiences appreciate Mattingly's contribution and the true nature of teamwork. We also think about the relationship of achievement to credit -- who remembers the unsung people behind the scenes in history, whose ingenuity helped make others into heroes?
After the initial moon landings TV ratings sagged and media interest in the repetitive launchings fell off. The Apollo 13 mission was barely covered on television - even when it ran into trouble. The movie shows Lovell's wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan) facing up to the emergency as it worsens, finally letting herself break down in private. There's no attempt to portray the hard-as-flint flyer's wife - Marilyn has her doubts about the mission from the beginning. But flying is what her husband was born to do.
Working from Astronaut Jim Lovell's book, writers William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert do an excellent job of translating technical problems into dramatic form. Part of the Apollo command module simply blows up in space, resulting in a critical loss of power to the ship's electrical systems. The three astronauts rise immediately to a challenge not covered in any of their training, improvising a plan to use the lunar landing module as a space lifeboat. The ship's interior temperature drops rapidly and moisture condenses on the electrical panels, a very un-reassuring sign. When the level of carbon dioxide in the lander module goes out of whack, they discover that they lack the necessary air filter, because the spares for the command module are incompatible. The hastily improvised solution is an object lesson in focusing on mental processes that solve the problem. We get the feeling that if men of this aptitude were in charge of the Titanic, the ship might have stayed afloat.
Ron Howard rises to the occasion throughout Apollo 13, finding both good images and fine performance moments. Most of the space action stays in the claustrophobic spaceship interior -- the astronauts can't even see what the exterior damage looks like. 1995 was early in the history of computer-generated images, and the lift-off of the Saturn rocket is flawed by the choice of computerized camera angles. Because the tools make it possible, Howard has his virtual CGI camera do loop-the-loops around the gantry as the rocket blazes skyward. The result is an impossible optimized view of the launch that comes off as photo-real --- and 100% fake.
Audiences were taken by surprise by Apollo 13, a story about "three men in a boat" literally lost in space. Crammed into a space barely bigger than a Volkswagen, Lovell re-boots the ship's computer using a minimal amperage load, proven and tested in a hell of a hurry by Mattingly down in the Huston simulator. Lovell must fire course correction rockets by manual eyesight alignment. It's all true, all amazing and a testament to the almost forgotten crucial competency we once called American know-how. Apollo 13 is a great show for kids, to show them how Granpa was a great guy -- his generation saved the world several times over.
The supporting cast is just as good, and exhibits good instincts against over-acting. Ed Harris is Gene Kranz, the director in Mission Control. Marc McClure, Rance Howard, Clint Howard and Paul Mantee have notable parts in the control room. Nostalgic folks will be pleased to see American Graffiti alumnus Kathleen Quinlan, of course, joined by that movie's Joe Spano in the thankless role of the director of NASA.
Universal's Blu-ray of Apollo 13 is the expected fine transfer of this handsomely shot movie. Much of the weightlessness in the space scenes is real, as a NASA simulator jet was outfitted with a partial movie set to film those scenes. That gag got a lot of publicity in 1995 and prompted most of America (me included) to go see the show. Apollo 13 also received a big Imax reissue a few years back, when the industry was desperate for new ways to "event-ize" moviegoing. 3
Audio and picture are exemplary, and the disc repeats a full selection of featurettes from the earlier HD-DVD edition. Most of these also appeared on earlier DVD special eds. Ron Howard has one commentary track and the Lovells (Jim and Marilyn) another. Lucky 13 is a long-form making-of show, while Conquering Space is an overview of the entire space program.
The disc comes with a bushel of foreign language subtitles and a selection of language tracks. The only drawback to Universal's disc is the slow loading process, which bounces one through a series of menus, all buffered by "loading" patterns: language selection, main menu and an "invitation" to join something called "Social Blu" through Facebook. These movie-delaying aggressive marketing tactics are not appreciated. On many Warners discs, one loads the darn disc and within half a minute, the movie we paid for starts right up. Imagine that, what a concept!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Apollo 13 Blu-ray rates:
1. As it turns out, Shepard was grounded by Meniere's syndrome, a malady of the inner ear. He later defeated the problem -- or covered it up.
2. Is it cynical to think that at least a bit of the astronauts' sterling behavior was done with an eye to looking good in the eyes of the men planning the flight schedule? Jack Swigert should consider himself lucky that modern celebrity stalking wasn't in force then -- conservatives would surely demand that he be canned for carrying on an "immoral" bachelor affair.
3. The studios' latest greed gold rush is 3D, some of it ersatz 3D, actually. As soon as someone realized that ticket prices could be inflated 30% for 3D showings, studios started converting 2D pix to 3D. It's typical of Hollywood, going for the short money, risking a new gimmick audiences LIKE by putting out inferior goods. They'll be lucky if they don't kill the proverbial Goose, the one who lays Golden 3D Eggs.
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2010 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.