Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 promises to be a riveting history lesson. The facts of the aborted Apollo 13 mission in April, 1970, seem like God-given movie material. Three astronauts — family men Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), plus cocky bachelor Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), a last-minute replacement for the original third crew member — go up in space with visions of Neil Armstrong dancing in their heads. Early in this second moon shot — on April 13, in fact — an explosion disables their capsule. It’s uncertain whether they’ll have enough oxygen, water, and energy to make it back to Earth alive. The men have to improvise solutions as problems arise, while NASA engineers on the ground do what they can, which at first isn’t much.
Apollo 13 has a satisfying grand sweep. Ron Howard sets up the trappings of the NASA techno-brotherhood, and he knows how to whip up massive, stomach-freezing effects, as he showed in Backdraft, with its flames roaring out at us like the wrath of a dragon. He knows how to put us inside a pressure cooker. And since movies, unfolding in a horizontal, rectangular world, are an inherently claustrophobic medium, I expected Apollo 13 to paralyze the audience with nauseated horror at being locked in this capsule — floating in an infinite inky void yet enclosed in a tight metal tube. But none of this really comes through. Partly it’s because these men aren’t very nervous about being shot up there to begin with, so that undermines our nervousness. It’s all old news to them. They’re stoic, they deal well with stress; like Tom Wolfe’s knights of the right stuff, they have an unspoken pact not to express fear or doubt. And so you feel the force of the movie slowly leaking out.
The story, adapted by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert from last year’s book Lost Moon by Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, abounds in real-life ironies. After 1969′s famous giant leap for mankind, America is rather blasé about a return trip — until things start going wrong, at which point the media camps out en masse on Lovell’s front lawn. (As Lovell’s wife Marilyn, Kathleen Quinlan spends the movie sitting in the house, staring at the TV, and fretting.) Howard picks up on an intriguing unsung-hero aspect of the story: Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise), the experienced pilot Jack Swigert replaced — he would have gone up if not for a suspected case of measles — stays on the ground and goes through one flight simulation after another, looking for a way to bring the capsule home on minimal energy. Mattingly’s story would make a good movie in itself; he gets all the stress of the mission and none of the actual elation of being near the moon. He’s the original virtual-reality hero.
Howard couldn’t have cast three more likable actors as the imperilled spacemen. What’s amazing is how little of their personalities comes across. Even Kevin Bacon, a suave Casanova whose idea of a come-on is a smirking demonstration of a lunar module sliding into dock, is too close to Dennis Quaid’s hell-raiser in The Right Stuff (and none of these boys is a hell-raiser). Physically, the performances look strenuous. The sequences in the capsule were filmed in real zero gravity, aboard the Vomit Comet used in astronaut training, and sometimes the actors look a little green around the gills. But the stars, and Tom Hanks in particular, are running on autopilot. Like the men they’re playing, they seem to have convinced themselves that the only thing that matters is the problem at hand; once the pressure’s on, there’s no room for such frivolity as inventive acting. (I kept expecting Bill Paxton to flip out as he did in Aliens — “Game over, man!” — but no such luck.) Hanks has an effective way of speaking in a dead, neutral tone when Lovell is frightened, but it seems like an actor’s choice. Hanks is trying to be true to the real-life, brave Lovell. The actors are smothered by history and good intentions.
Apollo 13 is so much more self-possessed, so much clearer in a basic narrative sense, than almost every other blockbuster this summer that I didn’t trust my initial, complacent enthusiasm for it. Of course it looks great next to Batman Forever or Johnny Mnemonic — what movie wouldn’t? There was one moment during Apollo 13 when I felt an Olympian surge of adrenaline: the countdown to the launch. Everyone in the audience stopped breathing. (The launch itself doesn’t live up to it. And I must point out the sonic inaccuracy, perpetuated by Star Wars and countless other space operas, of the exterior shots of Apollo 13 in orbit: We shouldn’t be hearing exhaust or explosions in the airless vacuum of space — we shouldn’t be hearing anything. A surprising lapse in a movie otherwise slavishly devoted to The Facts.) I also liked the DIY solution devised by Mission Control for the carbon-dioxide problem. The movie is terrific on nuts-and-bolts stuff — the disposal of waste, the instruction manuals magnetized to the capsule walls. But nuts and bolts aren’t the same as drama. I hate to say it, but in format Apollo 13 is Speed in space, and without Speed‘s kinetic audacity.
A director like James Cameron, whose nerve-destroying The Abyss made me vow never to go more than five feet underwater, would have made us sick with stress up there in that capsule. He would have risked melodrama, and probably would have toppled right into it with a mighty crash, but at least he would have gambled. Apollo 13 actually would have been perfect for Cameron’s temperament and talents. Ron Howard has talent but no identifiable temperament, and he isn’t a gambler. Taking his camera into zero gravity, he makes us feel the strange giddiness of weightlessness. Howard is the ideal man for a space movie — he’s a weightless director. Apollo 13 has its gripping bring-the-boys-back-home narrative drive going for it, and Howard’s monklike attention to detail sometimes pays off. It’s a solid and honorable piece of work, but to think it was a great movie you’d probably have to have a thing for control panels.