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'Apollo 13'

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 30, 1995


Ron Howard
Tom Hanks;
Kevin Bacon;
Bill Paxton;
Gary Sinise;
Ed Harris;
Kathleen Quinlan
Parental guidance suggested

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Ground Control to Major Tom: Starring Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell, "Apollo 13" hits new heights as the suspenseful true story of bringing three men back from the dark side of the moon. Fasten your seatbelts—it's a white-knuckle ride. Even if you know how it all turned out (and you should), this amazing journey is harrowing and exhilarating.

Hanks plays astronaut Jim Lovell, who was Neil Armstrong's backup man for the Apollo 11 moonwalk mission. We first meet Hanks at a period-perfect '60s cocktail party, watching, along with the rest of the world, as the other guy is the first man to step on the moon, joining Christopher Columbus and Charles Lindbergh in the pantheon of heroic explorers.

Still, even if he won't end up framed on the wall as Time's "Man of the Year" cover boy, Hanks hankers after the cherished dream of moonwalking. Soon his number comes up—and it's lucky 13.

With the astronaut Dream Team of Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), Hanks prepares for his own moonwalk as part of the Apollo 13 mission. But Sinise is grounded just before launch (for a heartbreakingly mundane reason: contact with measles), and with only two days to come up to speed with his colleagues, cocky Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) slides into the pilot's seat.

The film's stunning special effects, combining historic footage with computer-enhanced visuals, captures the grandeur of the liftoff, the balletic beauty of the ship's maneuvers, and the giddy goofiness of the first moments of weightlessness—there's a particularly funny scene in which Paxton's lunch is Lost in Space.

Suddenly, the capsule is rocked by a sickening crunch. "Houston, we have a problem," Hanks says, suppressing his panic. An oxygen tank has ruptured, tearing the side off the spacecraft, but the astronauts don't know exactly what went wrong. Their bitter disappointment at realizing that they've "lost the moon," gives away to a dawning horror: Will they ever come home again?

Where "The Right Stuff" emphasized the larger-than-life heroism and myth-making of the astronauts and the space program, "Apollo 13" is about how human and vulnerable, brave and foolish, these dreamers are.

Seen from a time when computerized flight simulators are on desktop computers in many homes, the late-'60s technology involved in this space mission (when modern science boasted of "computers that fit in one room") seems terrifyingly imprecise and primitive. At one point, Hanks has to calibrate reentry coordinates so the capsule won't either incinerate or ricochet off the earth's atmosphere, and a phalanx of Mission Control math nerds springs into action with calculators and slide rules—it's simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. Most touchingly human of all is the power held by superstition and prayer even in this high-tech, supremely scientific undertaking—we're still crossing ourselves and our fingers at liftoff.

Director Ron Howard takes what could have been a claustrophobic's nightmare movie—the basically static scenario of three guys trapped in a can—and makes it ring with action, anxiety and emotion, mainly by keeping the plight of the astronauts linked to the fears and hopes of the earthbound colleagues and loved ones.

The lean and efficient screenplay, based on the book "Lost Moon," by Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, is full of the terse poetry and dry humor of people in crisis. There's a strong, ironic subtheme about the fickleness of the media and the public: Because the Apollo 13 flight was already "old news"—the United States had already beaten the Russians to the moon, and Armstrong had already made his "one small step for man"—the networks didn't even carry the broadcast of the Apollo 13 guys cavorting in space. But when disaster strikes, Lovell's wife (Kathleen Quinlan) finds TV "experts" on every channel gorily detailing everything that could go wrong, and media vultures setting up on her front lawn in anticipation of tragedy.

Hanks turns in another poignant, potentially prize-winning performance as Lovell, allowing us a glimpse of the boy within the man. He's at his finest in small moments, as when his stressed-out wife tells him she won't attend the launch, and Hanks blinks back his disappointment. When regular-guy Hanks daydreams about walking on the moon, it's hard not to envision Forrest Gump up there, just for a moment.

Hanks is reunited with "Gump" buddy Gary Sinise, as the crushingly frustrated Mattingly, who gets to be a hero after all when he works out last-minute solutions from the space capsule simulator on Earth. Ed Harris, who has seen outer space duty before as a veteran of "The Right Stuff," plays stoic NASA flight director Gene Kranz in his spotless white "good luck" vest, and when Harris is finally overcome with emotion, it's near-impossible to remain unmoved.

APOLLO 13 (PG) — Nothing to offend.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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