Fifty years ago, America and the world were stunned and consumed by a sudden evolving crisis with an unknown outcome, and all they could do was watch from their homes…and wait.
The similarities between the Coronavirus pandemic and the Apollo 13 mission don’t end there. Both involve things that had become completely routine (Moon missions then; day-to-day living now) but were rapidly transformed into life-and-death scenarios, ones in which the best available answers were high-risk hunches.
Decisions had to be made on the fly, at times immediately, for a crew trapped in what was essentially a flying congested lung where breathing became labored and dangerous, and a feverish re-entry could be fatal. (Again, all stark metaphors to what America and the world faces now.)
If these parallels continue to hold, then our current crisis will also reveal the best of American (and human) courage, ingenuity, and solidarity — just like Apollo 13 does.
Twenty-five years ago, director Ron Howard and newly-anointed two-time consecutive Oscar-winner Tom Hanks teamed up to bring that star-crossed real-life space adventure to the big screen. (It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do the math and realize that a full generation has passed since that movie debuted.)
And now, as both Apollo 13 and the harrowing event it dramatized mark significant anniversaries, they each come at a time when the lessons they teach us could inspire much needed hope, wisdom and assurance to an anxious nation that finds itself in the middle of a new crisis that lacks a predictable outcome.
Opening in the heart of summer on June 30, 1995, Apollo 13‘s July 4th holiday launch was a fitting one. You’re unlikely to find a better film that champions what America is all about when at its best: a pioneering spirit that sets a course for uncharted territories, the grit to face (rather than succumb to) deadly challenges that people could have never predicted, and the resourcefulness to overcome even the most formidable trials.
In the spring of 1970, NASA’s Apollo 13 crew was set to become the third manned flight to land on the moon, following Apollos 11 and 12 the year prior. But the bad luck started early, first with the entire crew having to be scrapped because of one key member’s illness, and that protocol bumped up Commander Jim Lovell’s trio from a later scheduled mission.
This particular Apollo mission also had the number 13 as an eerie marker for vital stages of its expedition, a superstitious afterthought for most until, after a successful launch and exit of earth orbit, an unpredictable accident set off a chain of dire dominos in rapid succession.
Despite knowing the outcome going in, audiences were captivated by Apollo 13 as it dominated the July box office and came in a close second for the year (behind Batman Forever). Why? Because director Ron Howard was at the height of his populist filmmaking powers.
Elevating conventional techniques to a true art form, Howard displayed new levels of restraint while also exhibiting a keen instinct for exactly when to double-down on directorial tricks to accelerate tension. Allowing the drama to come to us, many of the story’s early setbacks are played quietly and patiently, informed simply by the human disappointment of the moment rather than forced with manipulative cinematic techniques, melodramatic staging, or intrusive music cues.
That relative quiet (which was also, at times, carefree) built a tension, one that was successfully triggered when events turned tragic. And that’s when we see Howard’s other strengths come to the fore.
The architecture of the screenplay by William Broyles Jr.and Al Reinert is also superb as it stacks the unfolding crisis with taught precision. Just as problems seem too impossible to solve, things actually get worse. Yes, these elements have the benefit of being true, but Howard wields a deft skill in how and when each element occurs in the storytelling arc.
Broyles and Reinert also provide clever lines of dialogue that help sum up complex situations and solutions (ex: “We just put Sir Isaac Newton in the driver’s seat.”). Some instances that seem like crass contrivances were actually lifted from real life (like the early scene of Mrs. Lovell and her wedding ring), and Howard underscores it all with a consistent expression of the American spirit at its most ideal, yet true.
In a perfectly cast ensemble, Hanks anchors the trio in space (including Bill Paxtonand Kevin Bacon), Ed Harris does the same at mission control, and Kathleen Quinlan serves as our entry point into the family drama as Marilyn Lovell. Harris and Quinlan would go on to snag well-earned Oscar nominations in the Supporting categories, and seeing Harris’s stoic, driven leadership lose to Kevin Spacey’s showy, self-conscious theatrics from The Usual Suspects was disappointing even then, but especially now. (I’ve always thought that movie was overrated, but oh well…)
James Horner’s nautically-hewed music ratchets tension and underscores heroism; it’s one of his best scores, though he likely canceled himself out of an Oscar victory by having both this and his work from Braveheart nominated. The Oscar-winning sound and film editing are vital to the crescendoing power of this entire experience, while the detailed time capsule of the nominated Art Direction captured the time and place of late mid-century Americana. (A smartly curated soundtrack sure helped, too.)
Nominated for 9 Academy Awards including Best Picture (but not Director!) and winner of two, Apollo 13 was an Oscar favorite that racked up key awards season wins, including the top prizes at the biggest guilds — Screen Actors, Producers, and Directors — but Mel Gibson’s epic Braveheart (a movie that made less than half the box office and garnered few major awards) would go on to pull one of the bigger upsets in Oscar history.
Regardless, the passing generation has been good to Apollo 13, It’s a serious historical drama and riveting blockbuster all at the same time, and it holds up impressively as Hollywood artistry in peak form. More importantly, it serves as reminder of what America is capable of at its best when facing its worst.
And watching it now in our COVID-19 times, Ed Harris’s mission commander Gene Kranz serves as an icon of steady, unflagging leadership in the midst of crisis, with lines like: “Let’s work the problem; let’s not make it worse by guessing,” or “With all due respect sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour,” plus the simple yet resolute quote (a classic) that defined the mission and the movie:
“Failure is not an option.”
Twenty-five years later, Apollo 13 proves both timeless and timely, capturing the nobility of human exploration, the dangers that make it so, the imagination to solve unpredictable adversity, and the courage that sees us through.