There’s a moment in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 that is so powerfully ironic it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cringe. It’s April 11, 1970, and NASA has just launched Apollo 13, the spaceflight that’s to culminate in America’s third walk on the moon. The three astronauts on board — Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) — are putting on a live-from-the-capsule demonstration for the folks back home. As they float around their cramped quarters, making cornball jokes and playing with a futuristic device (check it out, folks — a hand-held video camera!), it’s clear that, in their aw-shucks way, they’re reveling in the role of all-American hero. Lovell, the one who has been chosen to walk on the moon, understands that the mission is showbiz, a kind of sequel to Neil Armstrong’s triumph less than a year before. There’s just one problem: America is no longer watching. The major television networks, picking up on the nation’s collective lack of interest, have all gone with their regularly scheduled programming, stranding Lovell and his comrades — without their even knowing it — in the broadcast void. The year before, a trip to the moon was a religious experience; now it’s a rerun.
Of course, America soon begins to tune in, if not for the reasons anticipated. Shortly into the flight, there’s an explosion, and the capsule starts leaking oxygen. The plans for the moon walk are instantly abandoned. The only question now is whether Lovell and his crew can get back to earth alive. This disaster in the making, unfolding in a high-tech tin can hundreds of thousands of miles from earth, ought to be ominously thrilling. Yet the weight of that earlier scene — of a nation’s indifference to space travel — hangs over the movie.
Apollo 13 is an uncanny experience. It chronicles one of the most dramatic of all spaceflights, an American catastrophe that became an American victory, and it does this in a way that’s so authentic, so brilliant in its technical details, that it succeeds in putting us on that ship. Visually, the film’s re-creation of space travel is flat-out stunning. And the intercutting of actual news reports, principally from Walter Cronkite, adds to the eerie sense that we’re seeing history in all its verisimilitude. For all the grandeur of its scale, though, the film is still a bit of a stunt. Apollo 13 engrosses us in the nuts and bolts of what its astronaut heroes are doing, but it never quite tells us who they are. Despite some tense and beautiful moments, the film left me feeling like the American public of 1970, detached from an experience I should have been finding supremely gripping.
One might have expected a director like Howard to play this story at full inspirational throttle. But no, he has made a true docudrama, maintaining fealty to the tiniest facts. Most of the action hinges on the technical maneuvers of the astronauts: the way they get the capsule to dock with the lunar module, or pilot the ship in a fuel-saving trajectory around the dark side of the moon (one of the few times Howard indulges in wistfulness), or build makeshift devices to suck out the carbon dioxide that’s invading the cabin. The revelation of the movie is how low tech much of their activity seems, as if they were ’50s mechanics in a 21st-century vehicle. Yet Howard’s decision to let the inherent drama of the mission dictate his entire scenario has a downside. In a sense, he hasn’t done enough shaping himself. He has made a movie of objective events — an epic of tinkering.
Hanks, Paxton, and Bacon try to get inside the skins of these space-age pilot jocks. But the roles, as written, simply don’t give them enough to work with. We know that Hanks’ Lovell is a chummy family man who’s desperate to walk on the moon, that Bacon’s Swigert likes his women, and that Paxton’s Haise falls ill on board. Where, though, are the tensile group dynamics among these three? Philip Kaufman’s wonderful adaptation of The Right Stuff showed us that astronauts, beneath their square-jawed facades, could be complex men driven by pride, anger, even deceit. Howard buys back into the myth of the astronaut as honorable dullard. Even Hanks, with his jovial charisma, seems too much like Hanks to convince us he’s playing a historical figure. There is more fear, passion, and lightning in Ed Harris’ performance as Gene Kranz, the Mission Control commander who’s trying to get the spacecraft back through sheer will, than there is in any of the astronauts. Harris takes chances; he surprises you in every scene. But Hanks’ solid-guy performance is encased in nobility. You look at him now, and you know exactly what you’re gonna get. B