Apollo 13: Special Edition Review

The tenth anniversary release of Ron Howard’s account of the disastrous Apollo 13 mission starring Tom Hanks comes with new documentaries and an improved audio track. James tags along for the ride and finds out exactly what Houston did to solve a very big problem.

It’s a scenario so contrived that even the most cynical Hollywood hack would think twice before going in to pitch it. A lunar mission called Apollo 13, launching at 13:13 hours and due to rendezvous with the moon on April 13th, suffers catastrophic system failure, leaving the astronauts in a perilous situation fighting for their lives while those in Ground Control try to figure out a way to bring them safely home. It’s the sort of thing that’s so melodramatic it must be true, otherwise no one would believe it. When the ship launched, on April 11th 1970, little consideration was given to the repetition of the number thirteen, unsurprising for an organisation as scientific as NASA, especially when there was little to indicate that this would be anything other than the next in a series of increasingly successful missions to the moon. Although the Apollo series had begun in tragedy with the deaths of the three astronauts on Apollo 1 before it even launched, the next eleven missions had all gone swimmingly well, each one getting a step closer to the goal the whole world seemed to be reaching out for during the sixties, landing on the moon. The race between the United States and Russia to be the first to walk on the lunar surface was won on the 20th July 1969 when Apollo 11 set down, a moment that temporarily united the entire planet (apart from, one presumes, some annoyed people in the Kremlim), in awe at the sight of man’s symbolic conquering of the “final frontier”. That feeling of wonder, however, quickly dissipated and Apollo 12, which returned to the moon only four months after Neil Armstrong returned, wasn’t regarded with anywhere near the same level of excitement. By the time Apollo 13 was due to launch in April 1970 going there seemed positively routine, with so little media interest in the voyage that the first time most people heard of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert was when their oxygen tanks blew up, plunging them into a life-and-death struggle that was to demand the world’s attention again, this time for a very different reason. It was inevitable that the events of that week would at some point be turned into a movie, and in 1995 Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks as Commander Jim Lovell, was released.

A fine film, if there’s one thing that raises it above others of its genre, it’s a feeling of utter authenticity. Every control panel, every line of technical dialogue, every view out of the command module’s window into the blackness of space, feels completely real. The use of a NASA aircraft flying in a steep parabola to generate real weightlessness to film the scenes set onboard has been well documented, but the level of realism goes way beyond that. Although you would expect any film based on a book by one of those involved (in this case, Lovell’s own account of the incident, Lost Moon) to be good at getting its facts right, this has a fidelity to the source material that goes way and beyond most Hollywood efforts, helped no end by the use of actual television footage and several audio transmissions made during the mission itself. The respect for the space program and desire to portray what happened as near as possible shown here manages to bring the reality of space travel down to earth (no pun intended) and also make it seem all the more wondrous that it was ever achieved. At times it feels that the ship is held together by little more than superglue and sticky-backed plastic, an eon away from the smooth running of vessels we’re used to seeing in most science-fiction films, the nuts-and-bolts type craft showing that even when things were running smoothly the line between life and death was precarious at best. It’s clear that it only takes one little thing, a screw out of place or, in this particular case, a damaged coil in the oxygen tank, to plunge a mission into crisis, bringing home just how brave these pioneers were, and illustrating that even with the most routine missions these astronauts were dicing with death. At times it feels so primitive, you wonder how they ever managed to get anyone up there at all (especially when characters start talking about the wonders of housing a computer in a single room) and makes very clear just how desperate the three astronauts’ plight on Apollo 13 was.

That said, the technical accuracy on display would be worthless if it was at the expense of real drama, and screenwriters William Broyes, Jr and Al Reinert are to be complimented on the fact that, even though much of the film comprises of men in rooms discussing how to circumvent the latest mechanical problem they are faced with, at no point does the viewer become bewildered by technobabble or lost about what is going on or what is trying to be achieved. Although I’m sure much of the intricate detail of what went into recovering the ship is skimmed over, you come away from the film feeling you know exactly what had to be done each step of the way, even if the exact nature of how it was done is unclear. This is most notable in the sequence in which those on the ground have to figure out a way to filter out the carbon dioxide which is rapidly filling up the ship and which would have, if left unchecked, poisoned the three astronauts long before they got back to Earth. The contraption they come up with looks like a bad Blue Peter make, cobbled together with whatever was to hand, but it evidently worked, and Howard spends just the right amount of time cranking up the tension as the astronauts watch the CO2 levels increase before attempting to replicate the device. We don’t know how the device works, but we see the efforts that go into making it, and that is enough. There are many moments like this throughout the film – another notable one is when the crew have to correct their return trajectory by firing the rockets and manually steering her – that wouldn’t feel out of place in a fictional film but which are completely true to what happened. From a film-making perspective, it’s fortunate indeed that the recovery mission was so eventful.

However, while Howard doesn’t take much artistic license as far as the science is concerned, he does very occasionally with the human factor. As perhaps the one director working today whose sentimentality out-Spielbergs Spielberg this is to be expected, and to be fair there’s much less than in some of his other films (perhaps down to respect for the protagonists, nearly all of whom are still alive to this day) but there are a couple of moments that stick out. We get a shot of Marilyn and Jim looking across the void of space at each other, a slightly mawkish scene, as well as an extended sequence of Jim imagining himself walking on the moon once he realises he never will – understandable, but hardly subtle. There are other minor incidents too, but generally Howard’s handling of Marilyn and her family actually manages to stay on the right side of maudlin, Jim’s wife showing the emotions the men at Ground Control will not. (One scene criticised for being over-the-top is the moment Marilyn loses her wedding ring down the drain, but this was something which actually happened, although it’s not shown in the film that the ring was quickly recovered). The only other moment that veers away from the actual events in this regard is when Haise and Swigert have a mini-argument on the ship when tension is at its height. This is an understandable decision, given that dramatically, (even if not in the reality) there is a simmering resentment towards Swigert as he was the one who triggered the stirring of the oxygen tanks which led to the whole crisis, and was one that needed to be resolved in the film.

Howard makes good, solid casting choices, with two of his stars in particular standing out. The first is Tom Hanks, the role of Lovell fitting him like a glove, another all-American everyman who becomes a hero, and even if Hanks doesn’t have to do anything very much to convince, he is still a charismatic centre around which the film can revolve. Kathleen Quinlan as Marilyn, too, brings across the right amount of emotion and, from the little we see of the real Marilyn in the extras, seems to have her character down pat. Of Lovell’s two companions on the mission, Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert gets more to do, the actor bringing out the unease the man felt at being a last-minute replacement on the crew well. Gary Sinise, as the astronaut he replaced, Ken Mattingly, has less to do, as does Bill Paxton as Haise. For me, though, the most real performance in the film goes to Ed Harris as Ground Control’s Gene Kranz, the man in charge of bringing the astronauts safely home. He commands the scenes he’s in utterly convincingly, and the moment at the end, when he knows the men are safe, when he sits down and just allows his previously-checked emotions to surge forth is both surprising and feels entirely right. Howard himself was a good choice to direct, and does a first class job in making what must have been at times a very challenging picture to shoot. For me it’s his best film, shying away from the overblown revisionism of A Beautiful Mind and keeping in check any Cocoon-like sentiment, with several fine sequences (you’ll rarely see a better rocket launch) and decent pace. It’s not easy in a drama as confined as this (strictly speaking, there are only three main locations, all cramped, namely the ship itself, Ground Control, and the Lovell’s home) to keep it visually interesting, but he does, his sweeping camera over Ground Control contrasting well with the tight shots inside the claustrophobic ship.

For any film like this, there are obvious comparisons to draw with The Right Stuff, the film this most resembles (and which shares an actor in Ed Harris) and in many ways Apollo 13 works as a companion piece to that earlier work. At its core, Apollo 13 has a definite subtext that suggested that as the 70s dawned, the space program was beginning to dwindle in importance as what was once novel and thrilling was beginning to become mundane and commonplace – when, before the accident, Marilyn asks why there is no interest in the mission, she is told one of the reporters said that NASA makes “going to the moon about as exciting as a trip to Pittsburgh.” Only through a near-disaster does the world start to pay attention again. It would be wrong to say that space travel is never exciting, but there was a definite ennui developing at that time, and by 1973 the Apollo program had come to an end, the last mission launching in December 1972. In that way, Apollo 13 can be seen as a symbolic moment, when things began to change for NASA and the powers that be began to realise that a new direction was needed. Just as The Right Stuff marked the beginning of the first space program, Apollo 13 marks the end.

Overall, it’s a film that does exactly what it sets out to do, telling the story of Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, Jack Swigert, and those who had to rescue them, in as straightforward a manner as it can, with no embellishments and few Hollywood-isms to spoil the story. It’s a story of real courage and triumph over adversity, and while some may complain it is rather simple in the values it puts across and the way it portrays its characters, they miss the point that this is how these men were, and still are today. For men whose life involves travelling to the stars, they don’t need anything else to make their lives complete, their vocation is enough to make their lives extraordinary. Apollo 13 shows them at their best, and works as both a (fairly) faithful account of what happened and a dramatic, thrilling film in its own right.

The Disk
This tenth anniversary release comes on two disks, one with the film and one with the extras. The film is presented in its original 2:35:1 ratio, and both it and all extras (including the two commentaries) are subtitled. The menus are sensibly arranged, with the option to choose which language you wish to navigate in leading to a montage of the film and then the main menus themselves.

The Video transfer is first rate, with no noticeable marks or digital artefacts present. Occasionally flesh colours feel a little rich (although crucially never in the scenes actually on the ship) but other than that it does an excellent job.

The Audio, too, is superb, the new DTS track a noticeable improvement on the first release’s 5.1 mix, which was pretty good to begin with. The ambience of the interior of the ship enhances the feeling of claustrophobia, while the launching sequence gives the impression of standing right under the rockets, which is quite something. The original 5.1 mix is also present, and even if it’s not quite as good, still holds its own.


Commentary by Ron Howard
Howard gives a decent track which is factual rather than passionate. He certainly gives good value, with no pauses to speak of and always has some interesting piece of trivia to relate. Good.

Commentary by Jim and Marilyn Lovell
A fascinating commentary by the couple. Lovell, a natural who sounds as though he’s been making DVD commentaries for years (which, I suppose, he has through talking about the incident) takes command, and talks us through what we’re seeing on screen, giving further details about what’s happening and what it was like to be there (as well as revealing that it was Jack Swigert who initially said “Houston, we have a problem.”) Marilyn says rather less but has a few interesting titbits to share, most amusingly when she says a tantrum we see her on-screen daughter throwing was “typical of her behaviour.”

Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13
Excellent hour-long documentary that melds the story of Apollo 13 itself with the making of the film. Mixing extensive footage from the time itself with talking heads of those involved who are still with us (with the notable exception of Fred Haise), the majority of the film concentrates of the mission itself, but skilfully uses clips from the film to back up the story, showing how close to truth Howard’s version is. Interspersed at the relevant moments are accounts of how specific bits of the film were made, with all the main stars and production team involved contributing to the story. The combination of the two works extremely well and supplements the film extremely well.

Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond
Another superb documentary, this one looks at the steps mankind (for which read NASA) has taken thus far into the cosmos. Starting with Kennedy’s famous declaration in 1961, the first of three sections looks at the sixties space race, ending with the end of the Apollo missions in 1972. The second, “Grand Tour of the Universe”, looks at the development of NASA’s deep space exploration, starting with the initial survey missions of Mars and then on towards the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond. Filled with the images NASA has captured through the years, from our planets through to those galaxies “far, far away”, although the photographs have a familiar look about them the viewer cannot help but be in awe of what he is seeing, in some cases the literal birth of our universe. The last section looks at the scientific steps man has taken beyond the Apollo moon missions, with space stations such as Mir and the Columbia space shuttles all heading towards the ultimate goal of putting a man on Mars and beyond. Both inspiring (seeing history in the making as Americans and Russians symbolically joined forces years before the Cold War had officially thawed) and poignant (the footage of the two shuttle disasters, in 1986 and 2003, are still affecting today) this makes a firm case for the idea that through space travel man may finally put aside his petty differences and look towards a brighter tomorrow (something a certain Mr Roddenberry always believed). Overall, this forty-five minute documentary is excellent, a fine summary of man’s first tentative steps beyond our own planet.

Theatrical Trailer
Suitably dramatic trailer for the film which shows off both the realistic space sequences and also the human drama on the ground, doing a good job in summarising the film. The print used here is a pan and scan version, which is surprising.

Lucky 13: The Astronauts’ Story
Ten minute featurette from Dateline on NBC, this summary of what happened works effectively as a shorter version of Lost Moon. Using some footage that that other documentary doesn’t, it also features contributions from Fred Haise, but otherwise this is the same, albeit with some dodgy-looking computer graphics showing the module in flight rather than footage from the film.

Any review you will ever read of Apollo 13 will always say something along the lines of “Despite the fact the outcome is known, the film manages to keep the viewer tense until the very end.” This is entirely true, and the main reason for this is that the film is so authentic that the viewer feels that this really is how it was, and as a result becomes immersed in the drama, temporarily transported back to that indescribably tense week in April 1970. This special edition does the incident proud, with a fine picture and audio transfer and excellent extras. The only thing missing, which would have made a nice inclusion, is more footage from the voyage itself – as we see, Fred Haise had a camcorder with him and so there must be plenty more film from that week we haven’t seen in any documentary (not least of which would be the broadcast the crew made for television shortly before everything went wrong, which would be particularly fascinating). Perhaps there is some legal reason why this couldn’t be included, but other than that is a fine package for a fine film.

James Gray

Updated: Apr 04, 2005

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