Movies That Everyone Should See: “Apollo 13”

With the successful landing of the rover “Curiousity” on Mars this past week, my thoughts have turned to Space and the Space program, and that naturally led me to think of Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13”.

With an emphasis on authenticity and cast laden with Oscar winners and nominees, “Apollo 13” brings to life the nerve-wracking true tale of determination, ingenuity and courage that occurred on the 13th mission of the Apollo program.  

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

President John F Kennedy

In 1970, the Apollo Program was approaching a full decade in existence. Conceived at the end of the Eisenhower administration, the program received funding and began in earnest during the first term of the presidency of John F. Kennedy. When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space on April 12, 1961, Kennedy became determined that the United States be the first country to reach the moon. On May 25th, 1961, six weeks after Gagarin’s flight, Kennedy delivered his famous address to Congress, asking for the committment to go to the moon.

The “Space Race” was underway.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Neil Armstrong

On July 20, 1969, the Apollo program achieved the goal of landing on the moon. Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down in the Sea of Tranquility and set foot on the surface, while Michael Collins remained in orbit. Apollo 12 followed just four months later. Charles “Pete” Conrad and Alan L. Bean set foot on the moon on November 19, 1969. Richard F. Gordon remained in lunar orbit.
Serving as backup crew to the first lunar landing (Apollo 11) were Commander James A. Lovell, Jr., Command Module Pilot William A. Anders, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise, Jr.
Left to right: Jim Lovell, Ken Mattingly, Fred Haise.
Lovell and Haise would get their chance to land on the moon five months later (Anders retired in 1969). With a crew that included Jack Swigert as command module pilot (a last-minute replacement for Ken Mattingly, who had been exposed to measles just a few days prior), Apollo 13 lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 11th, 1970. Their mission was to touch down on the Fra Mauro highlands on the lunar surface.
Two days into their flight, however, damaged wires on the stirring fan inside oxygen tank number 2 short-circuited and ignited their insulation. This led to an explosion of the tank itself.
The explosion of the tank had a domino effect, causing a string of unintended mechanical consequences, most notably resulting in the loss of oxygen to the Command Module. The crew was forced to use the Lunar Module as a “lifeboat”, the mission to touch down on the moon’s surface was aborted, and the next three days became a harrowing ordeal of improvised engineering… with the end goal of bringing the astronauts home alive.
It was a success. All three members of the Apollo 13 crew returned to Earth safely.
Decades later, Jim Lovell hadn’t even begun writing his book “Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13” prior to receiving a bid from Imagine Entertainment for the film rights. His proposal for a manuscript to a publishing company was enough to entice an offer.

“There’s something about the story of getting back home, which is one of the seven great stories of literature. How do you get back home? And that’s what this is.” – Tom Hanks

Ron Howard clearly recalled the mission and the enormous amount of tension surrounding it, so when the project was put before him, he leapt at the chance. He also found an enthusiastic partner in Tom Hanks, who “always wanted to be an astronaut”. He claims to have been saying for years that he wanted to be part of a movie about the mission. At that moment, Hanks was coming off back to back Best Actor Oscars for “Philadelphia” (’93) and “Forrest Gump” (’94). Having him attached to the film immediately gave the project a higher profile.

Howard’s intention was to make the film as technically accurate as possible. He received an extraordinary level of cooperation from NASA, and was able to reference transcripts, recordings and archival footage. They even offered Howard the use of the actual mission control, though Howard decided to construct a replica set. He also had access to members of the Apollo program, including Lovell himself, so the consulting work on this film is unparalleled. They took painstaking efforts to duplicate things exactly and to adhere to the highest standard of factual accuracy. They were tempted initially to use actual archival footage from the liftoff, but chose modern special effects techniques instead due to the disparity in quality between sources.

Their efforts led them to take unprecedented steps, namely shooting in actual zero gravity. The weightless scenes were created by constructing a set inside NASA’s KC-135, a plane which is used to create zero gravity environments by flying in a parabolic arc. Each pass would give the crew approximately 25 seconds of weightlessness. Eventually, close to four hours of footage was shot in this manner, over the course of 612 flights. Shots where the astronauts entire body is shown floating were filmed in zero G. If there were close-ups required, the cast mimed bobbing about while shooting in a more traditional studio set.

Their dedication and faithfulness paid off. “Apollo 13” is a film of unmatched authenticity. It faithfully and realistically recreates the events, equipment, and environments involved. But it also captures the intensity of the human drama.

The movie opens referencing Apollo 1 and Apollo 11, reminding audiences of both the mortal risks involved (the crew of Apollo 1 perished in a tragic fire) and the incredible promise of the program. Lovell (Hanks) and the rest of the backup crew, plus their families, are having a party to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on moon on tv. It establishes the stakes and gives the audience an anchor for their empathy… the family. Although the television networks of America considered the mission routine and initially didn’t cover it, the families were completely invested emotionally from start to finish.

The film’s story begins with the crew’s mission specific training, shows the painful moment when Ken Mattingly was scratched at the last-minute for medical reasons, and then shows the successful launch. After a brief celebratory period once the crew reaches space, things get deadly serious in a hurry when the oxygen tanks get stirred and the malfunction occurs.

Houston, we have a problem.

Once the command module is damaged, the lunar landing is aborted and the mission becomes the safe return of the crew. The film’s intensity skyrockets. The mission control team (led by Ed Harris as Gene Kranz) shifts into high gear attempting to resolve issues as they arise. Frantic calculations are made, and by hand, this being the era of slide rules, pencils and chalkboards. Ken Mattingly is roused from his sleep and brought back in to the simulator to work last-minute procedures.

They faced the challenges of a dissipating oxygen supply, how to steer from the LEM, a power shortfall, the need to make course corrections, how to filter carbon dioxide, and worries over whether the heat shield was still intact and whether or not the parachutes would fire. Through it all, the mission crew and ground crew demonstrate incredible tenacity, nerves of steel, and even physical fortitude. But above all, unshakable resolve and incredible bravery.

And in the end, they were triumphant.

When I first was working on it, I really thought of it as, you know, the story of the guys on the capsule. It still is very much, but, one of the first things that we did once we committed to making the movie was go to Houston, see Mission control, and I realized just how intense it was. How personally they took it. And I began to try to find ways to tell their story, too. – Ron Howard

The film features a tremendous job by cast. Hank’s Jim Lovell has to watch his dreams of stepping on the moon slip through his fingers, and Hanks shows that pain plainly. Kevin Bacon’s Jim Swigert yearns to prove his mettle to the rest of the crew, and Bill Paxton’s Fred Haise demonstrates the physical rigours of the ordeal as he falls ill. On the ground, Harris, Sinise, and others convey the diligent efforts of scores of people who was necessary to safely return the crew. Kathleen Quinlan provides the emotionally chorus as Marilyn Lovell (she and Harris received Academy Award noms for their work here). The cast is backed by exceptional direction by Howard, and a stirring score by James Horner.

It’s a story that contains intense drama inherently, so the filmmakers wisely kept it free of Hollywood histrionics. Instead, they simply tried to portray the actual ordeal that took place from April 11 through April 17, 1970, when the eyes of the world turned to the heavens and prayed for the safe return of the Apollo crew. Three brave explorers who risked their lives and left the safety of Earth in order to go where few had ever been, for the benefit of all mankind.

It’s a story that doesn’t need to be dramatized. “Apollo 13” perfectly captures both the nail biting anxiety of the mission, and the incredible human spirit involved in safely returning Lovell, Swigert and Haise back home.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.  


50 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Apollo 13”

  1. Fogs, This is a phenomenal film as it embraces so many things so clearly. It embraces our can do past and pioneering nature and NASA’s tenacious problem solving certitude. Casting was absolutely inspired and makes this an inspiring must see. Good to see you showing it some love!!!!! Well done.

    • Thanks man. Yeah, this is a great one, isn’t it? The story itself was so incredible, and then Howard does an awesome job. The cast does too. This flick is just rock solid. 😀

      It does embody all the best attributes of NASA, there’s no doubt!

  2. Great writeup Fogs, and yeah this is a great film. I just realized Sinise and Hanks have been in two very memorable films together. The soundtrack is beautiful as well.

    • LOL! I just hit James Horner’s IMDb page… he has 149 (149!!) credits to his name as composer. LOL! That is CRAZY!

      Great work here though. Phenomenal.

      And yeah, Sinise and Hanks – Forrest and Lt Dan, together again! 😀

    • Yeah, I wish I could, I bet that would be awesome.

      I dont know, maybe I would get a shot… theatres are all about putting older movies up during the week now, trying to up the attendance on those off nights.

      It is a great flick though, glad you checked out the post!

  3. This movie is quite simply fantastic. Some of the most diligent, innovative engineers in the world here are depicted by superb actors. Everything in this portrayal is just perfect. That’s an amazing backstory that Lovell hadn’t even completed his book prior to the movie offer, WOW!
    Another MTESS hit right out of the park. 😉

    “We’ve never lost an American in space, we’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.” -Apollo13, Gene Kranz (Ed Harris)

    • LOL. Thanks S! Funny you chose Kranz for your comment quote, he was absolutely going to be this week’s tagline one way or another. (Couldnt go with “Houston…” too cliche!) 😀

      Yeah, amazing backstory. Just the basis in fact that this movie has. Everyone swears by the realism, etc… they just made a couple of dialogue changes here and there but overall everyone swears by the authenticity. They definitely had a huge cast for this flick, I thought they all did a great job.

  4. I thought this film was flawed. It tries too hard to wring drama out of engineers yelling at each other, when people going into the movie already knew that the crew was going to survive just from history alone. So ramping up all the yelling to ratchet the drama was artificial (the engineers from the footage I’ve seen were definitely more calm).

    But… it definitely was a movie everyone should see. Just to get a context on how badly everything could’ve gone … and how a failure can also be seen as a triumph. My wife and I visited Kennedy Space Center earlier this year, and pretty much all of my reference points came from the Apollo 13 movie. (Especially since the presentation leading up to the Saturn V display was about Apollo 8, and it heavily featured Apollo 13 command pilot Jim Lovell.) Seeing the cramped spaces of the lunar and command modules made you really appreciate the crazy amount of McGuyver-like innovations theses guys had to try just to stay alive.

    • I dunno know about the “flaws”, there. I didnt think they overplayed the “yelling”… that’s a high stress situation, I’m sure those people WERE yelling at each other. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of people out there who aren’t actually going to know the history, and who wont know whether they live or die, so it’ll still have that suspense for them.

      Even if you DO know, though, the intensity is there. I’ll vouch for it. I watched it this weekend (for probably like the 5th time in my life) and I was still riveted! It was still tense!

      Definitely agree on how crazy it must have been to pull everything off though. I’ve never seen those capsules but I can imagine they’re miniscule. LOL

      • I’m not going to harp on it too much, since a big portion of the movie gets the tone right. But compare Jim Swigert’s famous quote of “Houston, we’ve had a problem” to Tom Hanks (as Jim Lovell) and his delivery. The first is matter-of-fact, though the undercurrent that something has gone very very wrong is there. Then you have the movie version. I don’t remember it exactly, but there trying to ramp up tension with swelling music and dramatic close ups. The mission control guy covered in flopsweat going like, “What? What did you say?!?!?” and then Tom Hanks, also covered in flop sweat, pretty much screaming the line “HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM”. I don’t know… personal preference, but there was enough subtext and emotion to spare the way things played out in real life.

      • Not to criticize your opinion if you had certain problems with the movie El Santo, but reading your reply to Fogs’ reply makes me wonder how long it’s been since you’ve seen it. The “Houston, we have a problem” scene is not at all the over-the-top moment you’ve described. No one has flop sweat, Hanks doesn’t scream his line…it all plays out pretty realistically, without the kind of artificial overdramatization which movies sometimes add. The actors are definitely performing with an urgency that befits the situation, but all in all it feels completely believable. Maybe you disagree, but I’d recommend checking out the scene on YouTube if you haven’t seen it in a while.

      • They do add some drama, Santo, but even if the voice on the mission recordings is pretty much matter of fact, you can bet there was some crapping of the spacesuits going on. LOL

        I think Hanks and Howard did a good job with that moment, even if they did rephrase the dialogue to be more “Catchphrasey” 😀

        Nice share DB.

  5. I often wondered if Apollo 13 would lose its luster over time and fall into the annals of dramatic movies that really just exist for their time. But when I watch it now I realize that it really does have that timeless quality to it which make it a movie everyone should see indeed.

  6. This is one of the best movies ever. As a period piece, one can watch it years between viewings and it loses NOTHING. It is one of the few movies worth it’s production costs. The actors, having to film so many scenes in 25 second blurbs, really earned their money for a change. The acting quality was superb. There is nothing bad one can say about this film. The focus on authenticity is commendable and makes this one of the few, factual, plot driven movies that can be trusted as a source for what it really must have been like.

    • Yeah, I concur U.N., I have no knocks on this movie at all. Santo is calling it out for adding in sentimentality (above) and I dont agree… but I think that’s the only possible thing that I could imagine anyone could criticize. Personally, I felt the filmmaking was impeccable. The actors were all great, the score is awesome, the directing is great… I love this one.

      You’re right, it loses nothing over time. I just watched it this weekend, and I can vouch… it completely feels current and fresh. It’s lost nothing whatsoever. 😀

      Thanks for supporting this one!

  7. Grissom, White, and Chaffee died from the same problem as Apollo 13. Oxygen tank fire. The investigation that followed supposedly fixed all that. I guess not. I’m glad they tipped their hat to these men. It’s impossible to over stress how big these guys were to us kids growing up in the sixties. They were true superheros. Their pictures lined our bedroom walls. Every kid, and I mean Every, wanted to be an astronaut. Sending men to the space station just isn’t the same thing. What a shame. Only one other film comes close to equal this, “The Right Stuff”. Great review, Great MTESS!

    • Another future MTESS, but they need a little space between 😉

      What we need is the Chinese to say they’re going to send men to Mars. LOL Maybe that would light a fire under our ass. 😀 Start a second space race.

  8. Fogs, my appreciation for this movie has only grown as I’ve learned more about the actual flight of Apollo 13. I’m an Apollo junkie, so this is definitely in my wheel house. What’s so impressive about this movie is how tense it is since we know the eventual result. Nice job giving a historical perspective to the movie in your post. Excellent work!

    • Thank you Dan! Glad you enjoyed it! 😀

      You’re an Apollo junkie, huh? That’s cool. I can see how this film would really speak to you, then.

      They do do a great job cranking up the tension in the movie even though we know eveyone comes home safe. I think it’s a combination of the score (the music really hit me this time), the acting – I didnt give Kathleen Quinlan enough respect in the post, she got nominated for an Oscar for this movie – and the directing. Howard really really wields a sharp camera in this flick. Lots of zoom work. Great pacing. Great editing.

      So yeah, when you put all those things in with a situation that was really tense to begin with, you can overcome the audiences knowledge of the outcome, I guess!

  9. This has become one of those movies that I CAN NOT stop watching if I come across it on cable. Doesn’t matter if it’s 20 minutes in, 20 minutes from the end, if I watched it the previous day because I came across it then too, if I have something overcooking in the oven….I will sit there and watch the whole thing. I can’t help it.

      • Black Hole movies, that’s good. Yup, we’ve all got at least a few. Shawshank Redemption is the one I always hear people say, and I can’t disagree.

  10. Hi, Fogs and company:

    I was a kid when the Apollo 13 had its accident in space. One of the few times it felt as though the whole planet was silently pulling for a safe return to Earth.

    Very high marks to Ron Howard for getting such a proven cast. Especially Ed Harris, Bill Paxton and Gary Sinise. And setting the proper tone of ‘Professional Tension’ throughout the event. By coming up with solutions for every hurdle thrown their way.

    With a plethora of great lines sown in the dialogue. And Howard’s ability to draw moments of suspense and tension from such archaic devices as Slide Rules, Whiz Wheels and Large Votl/Ohm Meters.

    A solid film from start to finish! Very much like Fred Zinnemann’s ‘The Day of the Jackal’, from 1973. Where you know how the story ends, but takes a far back seat in the film.

    • Yeah totally.

      I think that it was Howard’s commitment to being technically accurate that helped with little details like the terminology. They were able to grab the actual mission records, and consult with the people who were there, etc… it IS amazing how much tension they were able to get out of such small details as getting the power usage down below 20 amps, for example.

      I suppose when you have three men facing death thousands of miles into space, the tension is easy to find. LOL

      Crazy event man, crazy. Fortunately, this was an averted tragedy. Too often, these memorable situations are just plain tragic. 😦

  11. This is one of the very few movies I’ve actually seen more than once in theaters, and I enjoyed it a ton both times. I saw it once at home with one of my friends, and again a week or so later while visiting my older sister out of state. Great movie, I also remember hearing about how authentic they tried to make it, including all of their trips on the “vomit comet” to shoot scenes in authentic weightlessness. Really a great movie.

    • Yup, big push for authenticity here. And it definitely paid off, I think that that movie is about as close a recreation as you could hope for. Plus a dash of movie Magic, you know how it goes.

      Hey, if you’re only gonna see a couple in theatres more than once, this is a pretty good one. When I was young I used to hit the theatre all the time, but that was really before home viewing caught up. There was a pretty big drop off between the theatre and the home VCR on the 27″ tv. LOL. Nowadays with blu ray etc, there’s no reason to hit the megaplex twice

  12. Well Fogsy, this is another fine MTESS you’ve gotten us into,

    (Yes, I’ve been saving that one)

    I’m hardly an unbiased viewer of this movie, as I’ve met and worked with a number of the principals of this film, and it’s absolutely one of my all time favorites . We actually had a private screening at NASA HQ with Ron Howard, Gene Kranz, Jim Lovell etc. That was a heady experience, let me tell you.

    If anyone is interested, here’s a portion of a documentary I made including the Apollo 13 section. You can clearly hear he says “Houston, We’ve had a problem” and not the more famous, but incorrect version of the line.

    Anyway. nice write up, my friend. You did it justice.

  13. I don’t know if I would necessarily call this a flick that everyone should see because there is a great deal of suspense that feels lost in this material. But, you have to give it to this cast and Ron Howard for giving us something that feels very close to reality with it’s actual events and it provides a great deal of emotion for these characters and their families. Great review Fogs.

    • Agree to disagree, sir! I dont think they lose any of the suspense! I do think Howard does an excellent job stirring the emotions, as you point out, though.

      It’s cool, not everyone gets the same mileage out of movies. But this one has a lot of support so far in the comments, for sure! 😀

      Anyways, thanks as always Dan, and thanks for stopping by.

  14. You know, I had no idea about the zero G scenes. That is some epic amount of effort. I can’t even begin to image the dedication that takes, not just from the actors, but the crew and everyone around them! Amazing.

    The one thing that stands out for me for this film is James Horner’s score. I think it’s one of my favourites from him. Well, before he did Titanic and then made everything else sound like it. Really beautiful work.

    • Yup. The score was the big winner here this time for me… it definitely made me stand up and take notice. It’s “Stirring” 😀

      I’m glad they did the zero G stuff… nowadays, that gets shot and edited up using CGI somehow and looks silly. The Apollo 13 effects look real because, well, they ARE real! 😀

  15. I remember being very bored by this as a youth, but it’s an excellent “moment in time” movie bent on capturing the essence of an event in our history; I think to that end, it succeeds, but I still to this day feel like it’s kind of a slog.

    The stuff in space is pretty amazing, though, and remains amazing even so long after its theatrical run.

    • I guess I could see being bored by it… if you’re a kid who can’t appreciate the nuances and whatnot. I think you should have grown out of that by now though boss. LOL. This is a pretty intense story! Gruesome death awaited! LOL

      I’ve always considered this a first rate nail-biter, and still do! 😀

      • Nuance is one thing, but pacing doesn’t do any of the nuances justice. Maybe I need to revisit for a third time. It’s just something I never got around to taking another look at as my tastes have changed again.

  16. Nicely done, Fogs. 1000% agree. My favorite character is the Ed Harris character, the one you’ve quoted in your blog heading. The whole cast was great.

    I’d also recommend the From The Earth To The Moon miniseries. I watched it a few years ago after being released to Netflix. This kinda stuff fascinates me even more than the Sci-Fi space travel stuff like Star Wars and Star Trek. (yes, really.) The reality factor just makes a world of difference.

    • Yeah, I watched that. Forget what channel it was on, but that was some serious stuff (Earth to the Moon).

      I’m a big fan of Harris’ Kranz, too. He’s great. Very confident, super cool. But you can tell so much about what’s going on underneath. I love his reactions as the capsule re-enters the atmosphere. Awesome role. He did a great job, he deserved the nomination. Glad he got it.

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