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A story of failure is often one of great triumph as well, where those staring down terrible defeat or worse must find within themselves a capacity for courage they never knew was inside them. With the manned Moon missions of the late 1960s and early 70s, there was always tremendous risk for the men who to took the heavens in those early years, and at the time, none seemed more threatening than an incident aboard a spacecraft during Apollo 13. What many in the public thought then to be a routine flight, held the world captivated as the fates of three astronauts seemed sealed in the vast expanse of the darkness of space.
Everyone knows the line: “Houston, we have a problem,” a phrase that even well before the film had come to be was a catch-all for a situation out of control. For astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), that phrase meant the worst. On the third day of their mission to the Moon, after a live television broadcast (which networks didn’t air), Command Module Pilot Swigert followed orders from mission control to stir the O2 tanks, a process that switched on fans in the liquid oxygen tanks. Unfortunately, an electrical malfunction caused an explosion, which was later confirmed to rupture one of the tanks, venting the gas into space.
When the other tank is found to have suffered a leak, the mission is aborted and the crew are forced to turn their landing module into a lifeboat and the plan now becomes how to return home safely, a task that there is no contingency for under the circumstances. A massive effort by those on the ground and the men in space is put into play, and as the life literally seeps from the vessel in the great abyss, the three men aboard Apollo 13 face a terrible truth. They will not land on the Moon.
Directed by Ron Howard, Apollo 13 is naturally full histrionics, which layers the film in dramatic tension throughout, a necessary component perhaps in giving the film some movie-going entertainment. That said, the film is a superbly-crafted, edge-of-your-seat thriller that at the same time, manages to condense a great amount of history and technical language into an easy-to-digest experience that keeps the technology and setting feeling accurate while putting the story squarely on the shoulders of the characters. Filled with great performances, Howard does his best work to date, seamlessly keeping the audience invested in the breath-taking visual effects while maintaining investment in the story. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
It’s tempting to say that when Swigert flicks the switch, causing the ship to go into chaos as being the film’s most important moment, and in no uncertain terms, it’s a thrilling sequence that combines action, special effects, and even some math. How cool is that? Yet, what strikes me more is a moment later, after the crew has understood they’ve lost the Moon per se, and a plan is initiated that would theoretically get them back to Earth.
I’ll avoid the details of that plan for those who have yet to see the film, but skip ahead to a moment during that flight. At one point, the potentially-doomed craft comes into an orbital position above the Moon’s surface. Both Swigert and Lunar Module Pilot Haise perch themselves at a small viewing window in the craft to get a look and take pictures for NASA.
They invite Mission Commander Lovell to join them, but still reeling from the disappointment, answers that he’s already seen it, having flown around the Moon in a previous mission. This aspect of the mission is already heavy with uncertainty, as cutaways to both NASA and Lovell’s wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan) make clear.
As they draw nearer to the surface though, Lovell is himself drawn to the windows and in his gravity-free state hovers over to get a view. Overwhelmed by it, we see him drift into imagination, a projection of what he had so hoped to do, what his mission was deigned for: walk on the Moon.
In his dream he sets foot upon the thick gray powder and heads away from the Lunar Lander, looking out to the Earth cresting the horizon after he drags his fingers in the dirt. Fading back to reality, we see Lovell now watching the Earth from the window, and in a callback to a previous scene, he uses his thumb to obscure his view of it, circling that early sentiment.
This moment on the Moon’s surface is the very heart of what Apollo 13 is all about, even more so than the incredible rescue effort of all those involved. While the film is ostensibly a dedication to this heroic chapter in the story of NASA, and rightfully explores the dedication and inspirational work of these people, the takeaway is this moment, the journey, failed or otherwise, of one man.
Like any in the space program at the time, getting to the Moon was the golden ring, and Lovell worked hard to secure that passage, his chance coming after the first of course, with Neil Armstrong forever earning the highest claim. Nonetheless, as a personal quest, standing on the Moon was for him a life’s ambition. To be denied that is devastating, but to have it happen so closely as it did, is certainly crushing.
And here’s where the film does best in demonstrating that, not by having Lovell wallow in emotional meltdowns or manipulative speeches or pontifications of broken dreams, but instead, in a wordless visual of what might have been. Think about how powerful this scene is, as Lovell, now only a few hundred kilometers above the surface, after traveling five days in a broken ship and over four hundred thousand kilometers to get there, unable to reach it. The mind wanders, as does his, and what works so well is that is runs through the highlights of what Lovell has longed to do: make an imprint in the surface, touch the ground with his hands, and see his home from another world.
As James Horner‘s wonderfully emotive score filters underneath, the moment becomes the turning point for the film, where, once the fantasy plays out, Lovell secures himself in what the new mission is truly about. He speaks to the men a curious line that for years left me unsure what he meant, asking them, “Gentleman, what are you intentions?” He continues by adding that he wants to go home, and I always thought the question was odd, but in giving this moment a more critical look, it becomes clear that he is speaking more for himself, resetting the gauges as it were, that with the Moon lost, their hope for it must be as well if they are to survive.
Apollo 13 is a melodramatic work of exceptionally high quality, a film that repaints history in a way that celebrates it rather than exploits it and if anything, inspires one to seek out where the details differ. And a time on the imagined Moon surface makes for a truly great cinematic moment.