**Some spoilers ahead.**
Three men are sent into space by NASA in 1970 when the space industry begins to lose its luster, and suddenly an expedition to the moon becomes a rescue mission back to earth. The journey is cut short when faulty equipment explodes and these three men, with the resourcefulness of the control center on the ground, use everything at their disposal to make it safely home.
Starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, and Gary Sinise. Directed by Ron Howard.
Intense scenes of distress and anxiety in a spaceshuttle, plenty of well-deserved yelling, some coarse language, and a woman taking a shower loses her wedding ring (no nudity).
Why You Should See It:
The indelible words of Astronaut Jim Lovell are embedded in our culture: Houston, we have a problem. The problem is more or less a mechanical failure that would hardly make sense to ordinary laymen, but the film slows down to present these historic trials piece by agonizing piece: leaking oxygen, low battery, rising CO2 levels, freezing temperatures, possible heat damage and disintegration, and a horrifying scene where the broken shuttle must make a perfectly timed burst for 39 seconds in one direction.
We know they survived in the true story, but it doesn’t make the movie any less tense. The flight director Gene Kranz, played by a brilliant Ed Harris in the best performance of the movie, passionately breaks down each problem with the crew like a math puzzle: except the stakes are human lives. Hope drives them to relentless measures. No one sleeps. You’ll never hear “insurmountable odds” quite the same way again.
Some events feel like a screenwriter’s invention. Gary Sinise plays Ken Mattingly, who had trained to be on the flight but at the last minute tested positive for measles, which he never got, but it’s his absence in the shuttle that allows him to solve problems from the ground. Without his invaluable wisdom, the crew may not have made it. Jim Lovell’s wife loses her wedding ring, an ominous foreshadow of things to come. The uninterested public are suddenly interested when it becomes a possible tragedy. The multiple problems that arise throughout the return journey become almost absurd, until you keep reminding yourself the screenplay sticks closely to the factual account. One supposed cliche after another is underscored by harsh reality.
The film follows a familiar human course: the first moments of joy on a new endeavor, then Something Goes Wrong, then blame-shifting and emotional chaos, and everyone must Pull Together in The Crisis to Fight For Their Lives. By the end, the men in the shuttle and at the control center are ragged, spent, scared, desperate — but never are they more bonded and hopeful. When annihilation is imminent, we see how they set aside their squabbles to become heroes. Not for themselves, but for the other.
Gene Kranz is the heart of the film. While all the performances are mesmerizing, Ed Harris plays Kranz much like he was in real life: a truly American spirit come alive in adversity, a righteously angry commander against the common enemy of death. In interviews, often choking up over their efforts, Kranz is a compassionate giant. You’ll notice in the film he is first seen as just another part of the machine, a crewcut military type with sharp edges and formal demeanor. When the shuttle malfunctions, Kranz stands taller and taller, a focused mind powered by a tender heart. He is the force in the background who drives every man to their potential, and we can only hope to step up to the occasion likewise when our moment comes.
The movie in itself is a case study of a nearly perfect screenplay (other case studies include screenplays like Titanic and the original Star Wars, which despite the popcorn roots, contain recognizable motivations and great pay-offs). Every arc in the movie is an expertly aimed arrow that takes you along for the ride, with total clarity and no loose ends. Both the goals of the plot and the motives of each character are presented with no frills, and by distilling every arc down to its most simplified elements, the screenplay never has a stray, uninteresting moment.
Of all things, Apollo 13 and other tight screenplays remind me of a really silly cartoon, Pinky and the Brain (a cartoon within the cartoon Animaniacs), in which our titular characters are given one simple goal: Try to take over the world. The characters Pinky and the Brain are compelling because you know exactly what they want, at all times, and you invest into their efforts when they’re thwarted at every turn. Cartoons tend to get this right, as outlined by Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting, because the rules are established immediately and you get a “geometric sense” of the characters and their objectives. If only we could be so mission-minded and heartily focused on what matters most; if only we could set aside the trivial, the inconsequential, to fight alongside the other, with both gentleness and urgency, what wonders we could achieve.
There are not many movies — or stories — like Apollo 13. Brave men and women step forward. There is no time for cowardice or betrayal. There is no irritating plot device with men working behind each other’s backs, no visible villain in a lab or tower. There is simply a race against low resources, a ticking clock, and an unfolding plethora of emotionless mechanical failures. There are arguments but the men quickly reassemble. These are men on a mission. With such a singular heart and mind, no odds are insurmountable.