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'Apollo 13': Retro Rocketer

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 30, 1995


Ron Howard
Tom Hanks;
Kevin Bacon;
Bill Paxton;
Gary Sinise;
Ed Harris;
Kathleen Quinlan
Running Time:
2 hours, 30 minutes
Contains profanity
Sound; Film Editing

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"Apollo 13," Ron Howard's soaring salute to space exploration, lifts off with a payload of the right stuff—courage, can-do, grace under pressure and other qualities derided as machismo by some and applauded as old-fashioned values by others. Whatever, few recent movies have explored these virtues with as much eager enthusiasm as Howard's latest effort.

The film's real-life story is as gripping as many fictional thrillers. It is a nostalgic return to the New Frontier for some, and a history lesson for those too young to have been glued to the TV set when the 1970 Apollo lunar mission began to spin out of control.

"Apollo 13" features a constellation of stars, the brightest of which is Tom Hanks as command module pilot Jim Lovell. As the film opens, the 42-year-old veteran astronaut is wondering if he'll ever come any closer to that pockmarked, pale and glowing orb than he did on Apollo 8, which orbited within 60 nautical miles of the moon. Lately, he has been filling his days by escorting visiting VIPs around NASA's Houston headquarters, dodging questions about how astronauts go to the bathroom (not to worry, it's demonstrated later).

The astronauts are cool by training and by temperament, but the writers give them an early opportunity to establish their credentials as warmblooded human beings at a shindig hosted by the Lovells. Top gun Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) shows a dishy blonde how to dock a rocket; meanwhile, Lovell and his wife, Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan), cuddle outdoors in the moonglow.

The story unfolds more slowly than it should when Lovell, command module pilot Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) and lunar module pilot Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) begin months of pre-launch preparation. They've become a crack team, but Mattingly is exposed to measles two days before the April 11 liftoff and is replaced by the less qualified Swigert.

The blastoff, photographed to inspire goose bumps, goes off without a hitch. And the moon is growing fat in the porthole when there's an explosion on April 13. Suddenly the badly damaged craft is both leaking oxygen and bleeding fuel. The instruments are malfunctioning, the heat shield is damaged, and that isn't the half of it. "Houston, we have a problem," reports Lovell, whose communique is so understated it's downright funny.

From here on, the astronauts have about as much control over their vessel as ham over its can. Their fate rests with the computer nerds of Mission Control, who jury-rig solutions that use everything from duct tape to the ship's momentum. The more problems that come up, the more ingenious the pocket-protector eggheads. Of course, they can't fail, because flight director Gene Kranz (edgy, excellent Ed Harris) won't accept anything less.

Howard and crew have paid enormous attention to the minutiae of space flight and of Mission Control: Former journalists William Broyles and Al Reinert based their linear screenplay on Lovell's firsthand account of the mission, as well as transcripts of the communications between the spacecraft and ground control.

Though "Apollo 13" depicts a man's world, the supportive Marilyn is among the movie's most developed, best portrayed characters. Howard, the director of "Parenthood," is not one to minimize traditional homemakers and makes excellent dramatic use of her anxiety as the crisis unfolds.

Although the story already has a happy ending and everybody knows it, "Apollo 13" is humanized by Hanks's reassuring portrait in courage, by Harris's nicotine-stained fingers and Quinlan's lacquered French twist. It's not quite like being there, but close enough to leave audiences a little moonstruck.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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