Saturday, July 13, 2013

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Apollo 13' (1995)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Ron Howard's penchant for crowd-pleasing inspiration finds its ideal subject matter in Apollo 13, which is cheesy at times but also admirably authentic, with a commitment to historical accuracy that nicely balances the sentiment. Howard meticulously re-created details of the ill-fated 1970 Apollo 13 mission to the moon, using transcripts from the control room to construct the dialogue, and eschewing all stock footage of rocket launches in favor of constructing his own images via miniatures, CGI and practical sets. He even shot some zero-gravity scenes during actual zero-gravity training flights, which offer only 23 seconds of weightlessness each in which to capture footage.

So even though the story arc is pure Hollywood corn, and the characters come off like movie archetypes, Apollo 13 feels genuine, and that makes it easier to cheer for the three all-American astronauts when they avoid disaster and safely return home. Tom Hanks is of course perfectly cast as the honorable, friendly and ultra-competent Jim Lovell, and Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon do well as his two crewmates. The acting in Apollo 13 is best when it's all about the characters getting things done; Ed Harris has only a few tiny moments of emotion as the no-nonsense mission control commander, but he earns his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

It's not easy to generate suspense in a movie based on a true story, when the audience already knows the outcome, but Howard manages to do just that when the Apollo 13 astronauts encounter mechanical trouble and have to turn back for home, unsure if their vessel will make it. The movie spends a little too much time on setup, and the soaring triumph at the end is a little overdone (at 140 minutes, the movie is the typical length for Oscar bait, but does feel too long), but overall it's involving, entertaining and genuinely uplifting. It's exactly the kind of slickly produced populist entertainment that Hollywood is made for.

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