a critiQal film review Apollo 13 (1995)

Plot: It's 1970, and America has already achieved their lunar landing goal, so there's little public interest in the "routine" lunar flight of Apollo 13, with astronauts Jim Lovell (Hanks), Fred Haise (Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Bacon).. until that is, things go very wrong, and prospects of a safe return fade. Based on a true story.

594 words (Est. Reading Time 2m 58s)

I’ve had nothing but bad things to say about the team of director Ron Howard and Tom Hanks together since they totally botched both The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009) so far. Because of that, I thought it was time to go back and re-visit a film where this duo actually made something that was worth watching – Apollo 13.

Tom Hanks, while not the best actor around by any means, never seems to be lacking for work. Why? It’s because he’s good at one thing, and one thing only – playing “everyman”. His character, Jim Lovell, seems exactly like most of his other characters. But the genial smile and the placid demeanor helps the viewer connect with Hanks’ Jim Lovell as much as, or even more so, because of the tension building around him. Unlike other actioneers, whose actions and characters are usually fantasy come to life, Hanks delivers Joe Schmoe. He’s not infallible or near-bulletproof. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to be at the top of his field (whatever that may be). Instead, he’s just a normal guy who gets through tough situations with a combination of luck and the help of others. It’s a situation any viewer can easily connect to, and Apollo 13 takes full advantage of that.

Surprisingly, despite his top billing, Hanks doesn’t hog the spotlight in Apollo 13. Instead, he lets other well-known names like Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise take their moments in the sun. While all the characters are absorbing on one level or another, it’s Gary Sinise, playing Ken Mattingly, that takes the film out of Hanks’ loose grip and runs with it. Despite being left back on Earth – and the film trying to focus on the astronauts’ plight in space – Sinise nails his character. It’s so impressive, viewers will want to spend more time back on Earth with him rather than up in space. As more and more pressure falls to Mattingly, the hero focus shifts to him. Slowly, he emerges as the real star of the film. His intensity at doing everything he can to bring these guys home – despite having been shunted rather unceremoniously off of the mission – is incredibly infectious.

Director Ron Howard, who has disappointed recently, takes this incredible true story and turns out a solid basis for the film. He directs sequences that will keep the tension mounting throughout, despite the relatively long (for a film) 7 day journey. As with most of his other films, he spends quite a bit of time going for tearjerker moments. Thankfully, he doesn’t stray too long from the center of the film – the desperate struggle to bring these astronauts back alive – so the viewer’s attention won’t wander too far.

The special effects crew is also in top-form, re-creating a shuttle mission with a sense of realism. The viewer will never have cause to pull back from the film’s atmosphere due to a poor effect or a noticeable green screen. Each and every sequence seems real enough to be a snippet of time in the crew’s harrowing journey, rather than a mere re-creation. It gives each moment of the flight that much more emotional punch.

As Ed Harris’ character, Gene Kranz, puts it, this fateful mission was truly the “finest hour” in NASA history. Apollo 13, led by the grim determination of Sinise’s standout performance more so than Hanks’ genially generic astronaut, does a good job of re-creating that moment in history for viewers. That’s true even today, more than 15 years after the film’s initial theatrical release.

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