A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 107 – Apollo 13

Apollo 13 – June 15th, 2010

Finally! We’ve gotten ourselves a new copy of this movie and it works! It’s longer than we like our Tuesday night movies so we’ve put it right in as soon as I got home and started it up. And I immediately teared up during the first scene as everyone watches the moon landing. I wish I’d been alive then. I wish I’d been there to hear it.

The space program awes me and terrifies me at the same time. I wasn’t alive for the fire that killed Grissom, White and Chaffee, but I was alive for the Challenger disaster. And as my mother was a teacher it freaked me out hardcore. And a few years later I remember sitting at lunch, waiting, because there was a launch scheduled and we all had our fingers crossed and halfway through lunch our science teacher – who’d been watching in his classroom – burst into the lunch room and shouted out that it had gone up just fine. The successes leave me feeling amazed. The disasters leave me devastated. I want to be up there.

So, back to the movie. It’s a piece of historical fiction, based on the Apollo 13 mission. And if you know some history of the US space program you know what it’s about. The Apollo 13 mission was supposed to be a lunar landing, carrying three astronauts – two who’d go down and one pilot who’d stay up top. But there was an accident. A short in the oxygen tanks caused an explosion, venting much of the oxygen and forcing the crew to scrap the landing and hunker down in the LEM to conserve power so they’d have a hope of getting back to Earth alive. And they did. It’s all historical fact set in a fictionalized movie, but it plays so real.

Tom Hanks is top billed in this movie, and ostensibly he’s the main character as Jim Lovell. He’s the man in charge of the mission. He’s the one whose home life we see. But really, the man I always remember is Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly. Exposed to German measles during training, and not innoculated by having had it before, he’s grounded to avoid having him develop the disease mid-mission while in space. It’s a crushing scene when Jim tells him he’s been replaced. Every scene with Ken after that hits me in the gut. Until they get him into the simulator and he’s instrumental in getting his former teammates home, working around the clock to get the re-entry procedure just right. He’s my hero in this movie.

But there are so many other great performances too. There’s Kathleen Quinlan as Marilyn Lovell, Jim’s wife. She is so excited for him at the start, but also immediately worried and her tone never wavers through the whole movie. Every line, every facial expression is so painfully true. I have special love for her moments with Jim’s mother (played by Ron Howard’s mother) and her lines in regards to the media’s fickle attention. There’s Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as Lovell, Haise and Swigert, the astronauts up in space, stuck with a broken ship and a lost chance at the moon. All three are fantastic in their calm determination and in their understandable anger and panic. There’s Ed Harris as Gene Krantz, running the control room at NASA and displaying a steely resolve that is far more like his character in The Rock than in The Truman Show. Everyone in Mission Control, all the families waiting to hear what’s happened to their husbands and sons and fathers and brothers and friends, everyone in this movie is wonderful.

In a movie full of amazing scenes and amazing performances, I have to say one of my favorite bits in the movie is the group of scientists who work on the problem of getting the square air filters to fit into the small round holes they’ve got. It’s a great bit. It’s some truly fantastic stuff and creates the most tense jury-rigging scene I can think of. And the whole movie is full of little triumphs like that. Everything that’s happening isn’t planned for. All the little things, from being underweight from not carrying moon rocks home to the filter problem, they’re all unexpected and all require a lot of fast thinking and quick decisions. And the movie does an amazing job showing not just the team in space but the team on the ground. It’s an enormous number of people, and every single one of them works like hell to make it all work.

It’s been difficult to write this review. Since it’s a longer-than-usual Tuesday night movie and I didn’t get home until quarter past 9, I wanted to be working on it while watching because I knew we’d be cutting it close to midnight. But I kept getting sucked into it, into the tension and fear, even though I know they got home in the end. I know they landed safely. It is based on historical fact, after all, even if it is a fictionalized account. And I kept crying. Because even though I know they made it home, none of the three of them ever made it to the moon. It’s built into the movie to make you want these men, Lovell especially, to make it to the moon even though you know they won’t. But to know that after the fact none of them got another chance? That hurts my heart. Hanks’ final monologue as Lovell touches on it as he briefly recounts the later careers of his teammates and himself. They were so close. Haise was supposed to go back on Apollo 19, but the mission was scrapped due to budget cuts. Ken Mattingly never landed on the moon but I am glad to know he did get back into space and to the moon, even if he didn’t go down to it. I’m going to have to go find the book this was largely based on, Jim Lovell’s Lost Moon. And I’ll probably cry most of the way through just like I did tonight watching the movie.

The bottom line here is that I love the idea of space travel and the space program and all the things we as human beings have done to get to the stars. I’m not suited at all to NASA, but I wish I was. It’s one reason I love Star Trek and all science fiction about a future when we get out there. It’s why I’m fascinated by SpaceShipOne and Virgin Galactic. It’s why I cry at movies like this. Because I love what it’s about and I want so much for space to be within our reach and this movie is so brilliantly done in every way to show just how hard that is and just how dangerous it can be but also just how much it’s worth.

June 15, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Apollo 13

June 15, 2010

Apollo 13

This was amongst the first DVDs I got way back in the late nineties. It was the first movie I watched when I finally bought a powered subwoofer and completed my 5.1 surround system. It’s a masterful piece of film making that blends brilliant acting, wonderful special effects, a stellar score, and a nail-bitingly good true story. Everything in this movie is perfectly coordinated to capture the mood, the spirit, and the exhilaration of this one moment in history. Indeed so tightly wound is the pacing on the film that I’m finding it hard to write a review of it while watching it because even after having watched the movie tens of times I can’t tear my eyes off the screen long enough to type anything.

Ron Howard steers the film with a deft and expert hand. He spends some time at the start setting the mood and introducing the characters. The movie starts on July 20, 1969 with a group of astronauts and their families gathered to watch the historic landing of Apollo 11 on the moon and Neil Armstong’s first steps on the lunar surface. Amongst the revellers is Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) who circled the moon on the Apollo 8 mission hasn’t yet had his moment in the spotlight to actually land there. He swears that soon he will go back. His team is Bill Paxton as Fred Haise, and Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly. At the last minute before launch Ken is grounded and replaced with Kevin Bacon (yes! we finally made it to Kevin!) as pilot Jack Swigert. We’re briefly introduced to Jim and Fred’s families, and as we reach the launch of the mission we meet a whole slew of support staff on the ground in Houston who will be guiding the astronauts home (amongst them Ed Harris with his wonderful turn as ground control’s commander Gene Kranz.)

The movie builds up to the rousing launch of the Apollo rocket, and Howard gives us a little levity with Jim Lovel’s television broadcast (while deftly establishing that the American public has lost interest in the Apollo program in the same scene, since none of the networks are carrying the broadcast.) Then there’s the fateful explosion in the spacecraft and from then on the tension is carefully ratcheted up for another two hours. A sort of pattern emerges in the way the film is put together. There’s some form of obstacle to be overcome, the obstacle is carefully explained to the audience through news footage and the wrangling of the Huston team on the ground, then there’s a short burst of action as the crew faces the task at hand, and then a brief moment for the audience to catch their breath and then the next problem comes up. It’s like action set pieces in a Michael Bay or James Cameron or Roland Emmerich film, but there’s only ever one explosion, right at the beginning, and everything from there is people figuring out how to recover from it. The clever way that the film keeps our interest by pulling us intellectually into the struggle the ground control team and crew have to keep the mission going, while keeping us emotionally invested by showing us Jim’s wife and family back on Earth coping with every bump in the ride is astonishingly well handled. And there’s a huge cast of supporting characters, all of whom perfectly carry the tension along.

A lot needs to be said about the careful attention to detail and the efforts of the film makers to provide verisimilitude to the picture. We’re given a detailed look into the space program in 1969. You get the feeling that the mission control set replicates every chair knob and screen in the actual mission control room. And there’s a claustrophobic documentary feel to all the footage from the actual Apollo 13 space craft. Only rarely are we given external shots of the ship at a couple key moments, and other than that it’s all tight close quarters as the astronauts struggle to survive. And of course there’s a lot of the movie filmed in fifteen second takes of microgravity on the “vomit comet,” a plane flying a parabolic trajectory that puts the entire set into free-fall as it descends. Just coordinating a film crew and group of actors that could capture such a great performance under such circumstances must have been almost as exciting as being a part of the actual Apollo program.

My wife informs me that Il Postino won best original score in 1995 when this movie came out, and not this movie. I’m flabbergasted, to be frank. James Horner’s brilliant music almost pulls my spirit right out of me to soar along with the rocket launch, and also percussively slams me along in the more suspenseful moments of tension and danger. It gets caught in my head and brings tears to my eyes. Man, he should have gotten that Oscar!

This movie makes me wish that I lived in another time. The last men to walk on the moon did so in December of the year I was born. Nobody has been back there since, and it’s possible that nobody will go back there within my life time. (I’d love to be proven wrong on that point. I feel that it is desperately important that human colonies be established in some extra-terrestrial locations to guard against the destruction of the entire species should Earth become uninhabitable to humans.) So yes, the 1960s technology shown in this movie is astonishingly primitive in some ways (people use slide rules to check their math, and the average iPhone has a hundred times the computational power of the lunar lander) but they were able to do something through almost pure willpower that we’re no longer capable of in our supposedly superior technological times. It saddens me.

June 15, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment