RogerBW's Blog

Apollo 13 11 May 2022

1995 space history, dir. Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton; IMDb / AllMovie. Okay, Houston, we've had a problem here.

Well, yes, and that's part of why I don't love the film. In many respects there's clearly a great deal of effort been put into making it as accurate as possible: detailed interiors of Command and Lunar Modules down to the individual switch (with flight articles, simulators, and huge amounts of photographic reference available), dialogue largely taken from mission tape transcripts, and so on. But whenever this historical accuracy collides with making a more accessible film, the accessibility wins. The line was "we've had a problem", not "we have a problem"; but the accurate version wasn't the line people knew from pop culture, so it had to go.

I'm not a filmmaker. This isn't a documentary. But the version you put on the screen is very often the version people come to believe. Similarly, Gene Krantz didn't say "failure is not an option" (though he liked the line so much he used it for his autobiography a few years later). There's no evidence of the off-mic emotional arguments that are shown here; that's not how test pilots tend to behave in the real world, but again it makes them seem more familiar, more like ordinary people.

And yes, that probably contributed to the film's great success. But it's not what happened. So similarly the four shifts of mission controllers get compressed into one, and the team that came up with a contigency plan months in advance becomes This One Guy who thinks of it at the last possible moment, which is more dramatic and easy to understand but not at all the way things were actually done.

All right, I'd probably rather watch a documentary, and talk about things like why this wasn't a free-return trajectory like the earlier Apollo flights (that wasn't compatible with the higher latitude of the planned landing site) or why the CO₂ scrubber fixtures were incompatible between CM and LEM (because the two separate companies that built them didn't talk to each other more than was absolutely required).

To be fair, again, this film is largely based on Lovell's 1994 book Lost Moon – the crew had planned to write one together, but Swigert died of cancer and Haise wasn't interested – so, just as in the book and film of The Right Stuff, when a writer has only a single informed source that informed source tends to turn into the character of the hero who can do nothing wrong. (Without, necessarily, any malice or intention to deceive.) Combine that with Tom Hanks's tendency to typecast himself as the Good Guy Who Is Always Right (being fair, this may have been the first time he did it) and too often it feels as though everyone else's job is to show that he's right by disagreeing with him and being seen to be wrong.

Though I think the single moment that soured my experience of the film was listening to James Horner's incidental music and realising that he was taking motifs straight out of traditional English hymn tunes and combining them with military-style solo brass. What you are supposed to feel here is: religious awe, combined with a side note of patriotism. That reaction is not entirely fair to Ron Howard, but the film is already making it pretty clear how I'm supposed to feel about everything, and Horner's score pushes that so hard that I find myself getting contrary.

So in many ways this is great. The astronauts' actors do their best to make distinctive characters even as the script gives them little to work with. I felt a little thrill when I saw the "LES MOTOR FIRE" switch and instantly translated that to Launch Escape System, the tower that would in theory have pulled the command module and crew away from an exploding Saturn V. For most of the time (when the scriptwriter is staying true to the tapes – all of which you can listen to! They're on the Internet Archive!) we get that flat informative tone that test pilots learn to do even when they're on fire (because the more information you can pass on, the less likely the next guy is to die in the same way), something which more space films could bear to imitate.

It's a very good film. But it doesn't thrill me the way it's clearly meant to.

(This film was nominated for the 1996 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. But, people said, it's a thing that happened; it's not science fiction. True in 1970, nasty people like me replied, but it's science fiction now.)

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 10:08pm on 11 May 2022

    The Saturn V launch CGI in this film has so much wrong with it, it would be quicker to list which parts are correct. And we have 70mm footage of original launches that look absolutely pristine, so why did they feel the need to use CGI for any of the launch?

    Similarly the LM engine burn on the way back to earth is so wrong it is laughable. Delta V in the wrong direction because the LM is pointing the wrong way, incorrect duration etc. Nothing about it is correct.

    And I second your views on the complete misrepresentation of the way the crew behave and the various procedures used, all of which as you say were written months or years before the mission launched.

  2. Posted by John P at 11:49pm on 11 May 2022

    Have you watched "Hidden Figures"? That's worth a couple of hours of your life.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 09:42am on 13 May 2022

    No, though it's certainly on the list.

    (And yes, I know it makes similar compressions of multiple people into individuals…)

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