I just finished watching the TCM premiere of the 1995 Best Picture nominee, Apollo 13. Of course, it wasn’t the first time I had seen it. Apollo 13 is one of those films that always seems to be playing somewhere and why not? It’s a good movie, telling a story that is all the more remarkable and inspiring for being true. In 1970, the Apollo 13 flight to the moon was interrupted by a sudden explosion, stranding three astronauts in space. Fighting a desperate battle against, NASA had to figure out how to bring them home. Apollo 13 tells the story of that accident and that rescue.
There’s a scene that happens about halfway through Apollo 13. The heavily damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft is orbiting the moon. Originally the plan was for Apollo 13 to land on the moon but, following that explosion on the craft, those plans have been cancelled. Inside the spacecraft, three astronauts can only stare down at the lunar surface below them.
As Commander Jim Lovell stares out the craft’s window, we suddenly see him fantasizing about what it would be like if the explosion hadn’t happened and if he actually could fulfill his dream of walking on the moon. We watch as Lovell (and, while we know the character is Jim Lovell, we are also very much aware that he’s being played by beloved cinematic icon Tom Hanks) leaves his foot print on the lunar surface. Lovell opens up his visor and, for a few seconds, stands there and takes in the with the vastness of space before him and making the scene all the more poignant is knowing that Tom Hanks, before he became an award-winning actor, wanted to be a astronaut just like Jim Lovell. Then, suddenly, we snap back to the film’s reality. Back inside the spacecraft, Lovell takes one final look at the moon and accepts that he will never get to walk upon its surface. “I’d like to go home,” he announces.
It’s a totally earnest and unabashedly sentimental moment, one that epitomizes the film as a whole. There is not a hint of cynicism to be found in Apollo 13. Instead, it’s a big, old-fashioned epic, a story about a crisis and how a bunch of determined, no-nonsense professionals came together to save the day. “Houston,” Lovell famously says at one point, “we have a problem.” It’s a celebrated line but Apollo 13 is less about the problem and more about celebrating the men who, through their own ingenuity, solved that problem.
That Apollo 13 is a crowd-pleaser should come as no surprise. It was directed by Ron Howard and I don’t know that Howard has ever directed a film that wasn’t designed to make audiences break into applause during the end credits. When Howard fails, the results can be maudlin and heavy-handed. But when he succeeds, as he does with Apollo 13, he proves that there’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned, inspirational entertainment.
Of course, since Apollo 13 is a Ron Howard film, that means that Clint Howard gets a small role. In Apollo 13, Clint shows up as a bespectacled flight engineer. When astronaut Jack Swiggert (Kevin Bacon) mentions having forgotten to pay his taxes before going into space, Clint says, “He shouldn’t joke about that, they’ll get him.” It’s a great line and Clint does a great job delivering it.
Apollo 13 is usually thought of as being a Tom Hanks film but actually, it’s an ensemble piece. Every role, from the smallest to the biggest, is perfectly cast. Not surprisingly, Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan, and Ed Harris all turn in excellent performances. But, even beyond the marquee names, Apollo 13 is full of memorable performances. Watching it tonight, I especially noticed an actor named Loren Dean, who played a NASA engineer named John Aaron. Dean didn’t get many lines but he was totally believable in his role. You looked at him and you thought, “If I’m ever trapped in space, this is the guy who I want working to bring me home.”
Apollo 13 was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart. Personally, out of the nominees, I probably would have picked Sense and Sensibility but Apollo 13 more than deserved the nomination.