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Apollo 13  Print E-mail
DVD Drama
Written by Bill Warren   
Tuesday, 16 March 1999



title:
Apollo 13 (DTS)


studio:
Universal Home Video
MPAA rating: PG
starring: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, Joe Spano, Chris Ellis, Marc McClure, Clint Howard
release year: 1995
film rating: Four-and-a-half stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

'Apollo 13' remains Ron Howard's best movie as a director, compelling, well-acted, deeply involving and tightly focussed on its story, the near-disaster of the Apollo 13 moon voyage. Even on home video, this movie -- which like most big-scale films, still works better in theaters no matter how good your system -- retains its power and suspense. And the latter is Howard's finest accomplishment: the whole world knows that through a combination of luck, skill, training, ingenuity and focussed attention, the three Apollo 13 astronauts returned safely to Earth. But the movie still manages to be nail-bitingly suspenseful from almost the beginning until Tom Hanks' summing-up voiceover at the end.

It's so engrossing as to be nearly hypnotic, with strong but self-effacing performances by a good cast, and a very tight focus on just what happened. Mission commander Jim Lovell is played by Tom Hanks, reuniting with director Howard; the other two members of the mission are Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), who at the last minute replaced Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise). The principal figure down in Mission Control is Gene Kranz (Ed Harris, back in another real-life space saga).

The screenplay by William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert is based on Lost Moon, the book about the mission by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger. It isn't a wistful, sardonic muse on the space program and the astronauts, as was the great movie of 'The Right Stuff' (which also starred Ed Harris); instead, 'Apollo 13' is a simple, straightforward telling of the events of the mission. But there's nothing simple about the impact of the movie; this is an awesome achievement.

It's not just about the space program; it's about what we have lost, not just America -- the film waves no flags -- but the whole world, from the decline of the space program. The movie does not force this viewpoint on us; it is inherent in the material, even though this material is about a space mission that didn't succeed. When I was child, I was crazy about science fiction and the prospect of travel in space; if someone had told me then that after we reached the Moon, we stopped going there, I simply would not have believed them. It's the greatest adventure in the history of Mankind; how could we stop going?

But what neither I nor anyone else ever dreamed was that the Moon missions would be so successful, so smoothly done, that by the time of only the third mission, America and the world had become jaded so swiftly -- Apollo 13 was launched 8 months after Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon -- that not one of the three major networks carried even a second of their telexast. Going to the Moon had become routine -- or so we're told now. The real problem is that the three TV networks so tightly controlled EVERYTHING that was telecast that they could simply decide America was jaded. Enthusiasm for manned space exploration could have been maintained by the networks, but it wouldn't have sold toothpaste. So out with the greatest adventure in the history of humanity, and on with sitcoms and cop shows.

But I still dream of looking at foreign stars, of making footprints where no human being has ever been, of staring out into the blackness of space, of simply seeing the Earth from the surface of the Moon. I dream of these, even though I know they will never happen to me -- but I dream and hope that someone will do this. 'Apollo 13' begins on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. We see Lovell in his back yard, covering the disc of the moon with his thumb; later, as his crippled ship rounds the moon, he covers Earth with his thumb. In some ways, it's the high point of 'Apollo 13;' Lovell himself never went back into space, never stood on the Moon, but in his dreams he did, and for a moment, we share his dreams, his imagination and the thrill of wonder of being a space traveler.

Tom Hanks was inspired by appearing in this movie, and has become one of the greatest proponents of manned space exploration anywhere, and a great fan of America's space efforts. He produced that superb miniseries 'From the Earth to the Moon,' and continues to speak on behalf of astronauts and the space program.

Many of the weightless scenes in 'Apollo 13' were shot aboard planes traveling a special parabola that created real weightlessness for seconds at a time. It works fine, too, and was actually probably simpler to do than to try to fake weightlessness the usual way, with a lot of hidden wires. It's visually aamazing; you do never quite get accustomed to seeing Hanks and the others drift by like dandelion fluff.

The special effects are excellent, a blend of model work and computer graphics; the press kit heavily emphasizes that all of the Apollo 13 mission footage was created for the movie, and that no NASA or other newsreel footage was used at any point. You could have fooled me, which, of course, is the intent. Again, even though this is very impressive, and makes the film dazzling and fresh to watch, it's not what makes 'Apollo 13' so good.

Most of Ron Howard's previous movies, even the good ones like 'Cocoon,' 'Parenthood' and 'The Paper,' have had a tendency toward contrived, standard-Hollywood plotting, even more noticeable in films like 'Gung Ho,' 'Backdraft' and 'Far and Away.' Except for the briefest of instances, there is none of that melodrama in 'Apollo 13,' even when it could easily have been added.

The film captures the period and style of NASA perfectly: lots of people smoke and no one objects, fashions look rather drab, especially NASA workers, who seemed even then to be something from another planet, with their narrow black ties, short-sleeved white shirts and buzz-cut hair. But they were tough professionals, and some of them were the real dreamers. At one point, the CO2 filters are overloaded, so round filters designed for the capsule have to be fitted into the rectangular holdings aboard the landing module where the astronauts have had to move because of the accident. Back in Houston, a pile of miscellaneous stuff is dumped onto a table: this is all the astronauts have to work with, so the NASA workers have to kluge together something out of this and nothing else. It's the best illustration in the film of the real difficulty everyone faced.

The performances are beautiful -- understated, honest, direct. Even Bill Paxton, who in the past has not only chewed scenery but devoured it whole, is on the nose in his playing, not too much, not too little. Kevin Bacon gives another of his thoughtful, realistic performances; he's always good. Tom Hanks is the star of the film, and everything relating to the astronauts is essentially from his point of view, but he does not dominate the movie at all; he's merely the central figure. If any actor holds the film together, it's really Ed Harris as Gene Kranz, but that's because Kranz held the mission together. He had to take everything in, assimilate and analyze it, and come back with an instantaneous decision -- and it had to be right. Harris is absolutely outstanding here; it's at once his least showy performance and his best to date. He vanishes utterly into the role.

It's irritating that this well-produced DVD, complete with DTS sound, has absolutely no extras at all; no trailer, no making-of documentary, no commentary tracks (and this is a film that would greatly benefit from them). Why Universal would put out such a bare-bones edition of such an excellent movie is a mystery.

Naturally, since most of this story takes place in the spaceship and what amounts to offices, there are few opportunities for room-shaking audio theatrics. However, the launch sequence (chapter 13), the malfunction (chapter 19 -- "Houston, we have a problem"), and the re-entry (chapter 52) make the most of the DTS sound.

Even though this is such a bare-bones disc, the movie itself is so very fine that this is a good purchase for anyone even remotely interested in Ron Howard, Tom Hanks or the space program. This and 'The Right Stuff' are the best movies ever made on the subject.


more details
sound format:
5.1 DTS
aspect ratio(s):
letterboxed/anamorphic
special features: no extras whatsoever
comments: email us here...
   
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR








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