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25 Years Later: ‘Apollo 13’ a Key Part of the NASA Movie Canon

by Stephen Silver

When it comes to movies about the United States space program, there are quite a few movies and TV shows that often run together in one’s head. There was 1983’s The Right Stuff, the 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, the 2016 film Hidden Figures, the 2018 film First Man, and, from last year, both the documentary Apollo 11 and alt-history Apple TV+ series For All Mankind

Right in the middle of that canon is Apollo 13, Ron Howard’s 1995 dramatization of the titular aborted lunar mission, from 1970, in which three astronauts raced against time to get back to Earth safely. That film, which brought the phrase “Houston, we have a problem” into the lexicon, marks its 25th anniversary on June 30. 

Directed by Howard and written by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, Apollo 13 was adapted from a book by astronaut Jim Lovell, published the year before, called  Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13. 

Tom Hanks, coming off his back-to-back Best Actor Oscar wins for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, starred in the film as Lovell, who was chosen to lead his first lunar mission, the year after the historic Apollo 11 landing. Lovell had been scheduled to fly along with Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), but after Mattingly was sidelined days before the launch due to a German Measles scare, he was replaced at the last minute by Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon.) 

As Lovell’s wife (Kathleen Quinlan) worries on the ground, the mission begins, but an explosion makes it clear that Apollo 13 is never making it to the moon. Instead, the astronauts themselves, and the astronauts on the ground, must do the calculations required to get themselves back to Earth safely, using the available oxygen supply. 

What’s fascinating about Apollo 13 isn’t that, from a filmmaking standpoint, it doesn’t break any ground, and it didn’t look especially different visually the NASA-based movies that came before and after. We get plenty of the signature shots, starting with the astronauts walking towards the shuttle in slow motion as triumphant music plays. We get the worried wives on the ground and mission control back in Houston. And, as always, someone plays Deke Slayton (Chris Ellis, this time.) 

However, Howard’s film is still a gem, for a few reasons. It assembled a first-rate cast, led by an at-his-peak Tom Hanks, who nevertheless looks nearly impossibly young (he was 39 at the time of the film’s release.) Bacon, Paxton, and Sinise are also all wonderful as the other astronauts, although Quinlan, as is often the case across the genre, isn’t given a whole lot to do as the astronaut’s wife (Claire Foy would reinvent this sort of role, nearly a quarter-century later, in First Man.) Ed Harris- who was also in The Right Stuff – plays the Mission Control quarterback role, as Gene Kranz. 

In addition, the film ratchets up the suspense, even though it’s likely everyone watching it knows exactly how it’s going to end. And the character motivations are clear throughout: Hanks’ Lovell, the film makes clear, really, really wants to have a chance to walk on the moon. Meanwhile, Bacon’s Swigert, added to the team at the 11th hour, hasn’t managed to earn the trust of his colleagues. 

Apollo 13 was nominated for nine Oscars, although it lost Best Picture to Braveheart, and Hanks’ two-year Best Actor streak was snapped when he wasn’t nominated. It did win deserved Oscars for Best Sound and Best Film Editing. 

No, it’s not the best movie of its kind. The Right Stuff essentially invented this genre, From the Earth to the Moon was more expansive, and last year’s Apollo 11 was absolutely mind-blowing in its detail. But Apollo 13 is still a winner, that belongs in the conversation of the most important movies about the space program. 

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