Ron Howard’s gripping historical space thriller teaches us a lot about frustrated expectations in our current moment (and the resolve to overcome them).
Most films, especially ones from American studios, have trained us to expect the good guys to meet a basic requirement. They set out to achieve a goal, and through trial and error, they accomplish it, usually within a satisfying two-hour runtime. Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, which was released 25 years ago (and came out 25 years after the doomed journey the movie depicts) is the rare studio film that denies audiences that expectation. It’s about a complete, utterly catastrophic failure to accomplish the mission, and the disappointment we feel when things don’t go according to plan. That’s also what makes it essential viewing in a world put on pause by a global pandemic.
Watching Apollo 13 is like Raiders of the Lost Ark if halfway through, Indiana Jones got a bad flat tire in Cairo and spent the rest of the movie trying to get back to his boring teaching job in Connecticut. Wondering how cool it would have been to discover the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis got their hands on it.
It’s rare for a major studio blockbuster to focus on the “what could have been”, but we now find ourselves in a world where everyone on Earth has had their lives go off track. Graduations, funerals, jobs, weddings (including mine) have been postponed, canceled, or changed so much they are unrecognizable to what we hoped for. The other question that Apollo 13 asks, and what we’re faced with now is, “So what are you gonna do about it?”. Do we curl up into a ball and float away into oblivion, or do we come together to figure out how to survive?
The goal at the start of Apollo 13 is clear. Go to the moon and return back to Earth safely. The astronauts, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), know that the world has already moved on from the magic of space travel after Neil Armstrong did what no person had ever done before in the Apollo 11 mission. Still, being able to say you touched the surface of the moon and looked up at a tiny planet Earth in the vastness of space is still incredible, even if you’re not the first.
Two days into the mission, a faulty wire causes an explosion that spews precious oxygen out of the spaceship, causing the men aboard to turn off essential systems in order to conserve power and using their tiny Lunar Module as a lifeboat. Meanwhile, the men and women (sadly in this film, all men) of NASA’s Mission Control scramble to bring them home alive. The original goal of walking on the Moon is no more.
Howard sets us up to be crushed along with the characters from the start. Instead of watching the historic Apollo 11 broadcast in full, we watch Lovell watch it, a trick Howard uses throughout the movie. We can see all the hopes and dreams for the moon in Hank’s eyes.
Do we curl up into a ball and float away into oblivion, or do we come together to figure out how to survive?
By the way, this film came out during an all-time stretch for any film actor. In just three years, starting in 1992’s A League of Their Own, Hanks went from loveable actor in mostly good comedies, to a two-time Oscar winner and a once in a generation talent. Even though Apollo 13 ended his Best Actor streak, he is still the heart and soul. He gives a solid, non-flashy performance that clinches his spot as the “Everyman Actor” who we root for to this day. There’s a reason why the news that Hanks tested positive for COVID-19 in March was the moment many people realized we were now living in a different world.
The devastation of the failed mission seeps in not when we see the explosion that almost kills them in space, but when we see the astronauts look out the module’s tiny window, passing the dark side of the moon on the return journey home. After years of training, hard work, and hopeful expectations, it all floats away like their oxygen reserves. The complete heartbreak comes when we watch Lowell not looking. We are only left with seeing him walk on the moon in his imagination.
The theme of disappointment starts before the mission begins with astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise). With just a few days to go before the launch, Mattingly has to be removed from the Apollo team due to possible exposure to the measles. It’s a microcosm of the way the whole film tackles the way people deal with bitter disappointment, and Sinise’s performance nails it. The look on his face as he gets the bad news tells us everything we need to know. All those hours stuck in flight simulations seem for naught until he realizes his skills can still be put to good use.
The rest of the film, Sinise echoes the redemption arc he went through the previous year as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump. He hits a rock bottom of self-pity, before getting back to work to try to rescue his friends. It’s his idea of rerouting a tiny number of amps in the Lunar Module that gets them over the final hurdle of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere without bouncing off of it.
The other essential character that isn’t a part of the actual mission is Lovell’s wife, Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan). The “Worried Wife of Important Man” part is on the Mount Rushmore of thankless roles, but Quinlan avoids the usual pitfalls by manifesting all of our anxieties about the Apollo 13 crew while also showing us how we can handle the anxiety in our own lives.
Her literal worst nightmare, which Howard shows in an intense dream sequence where her husband tumbles out of the spaceship and floats away into the darkness, mostly comes true. Seeing her try to hold it together for the sake of her family while the thing she was most worried about slowly comes true hits closer to home now for many people.
With jobs being lost at historical levels and watching the leaders of our government fail us in every way, we are seeing our biggest fears become reality on a daily basis. Seeing a strong woman like Marilyn facing awful events that are outside of her control with courage and poise is a powerful reminder that we can get through this.
Of course, Apollo 13 doesn’t have all the answers to our current situation and features the same major flaw as other Howard films — a lot of whiteness. The early U.S. space program was heavily white, but we know African Americans played a crucial role in the space race. There is not one Black person to be seen in any frame of any scene taking place at NASA’s facilities. Did I also mention the lack of women?
Howard also fails to show the social upheaval happening in America at the same time as the Apollo missions. If you want a film that slightly touches on that dynamic, you can check out Damien Chazelle’s underrated First Man, but even that mostly shies away from the political turmoil simmering in the country in the late ‘60s.
Ron Howard can be the filmmaking equivalent of Ed Harris’ military style crew cut in the film. Clean, by the book, and very unhip. But the valuable thing Howard brings to the table, and is used in Apollo 13 most successfully, is his positive, humanistic nature. Like Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life in the first half of the 20th century, Howard’s films see the good in people and their resilience in the face of insurmountable odds.
When all hope is lost, and the Apollo 13 crew is losing valuable oxygen by the second, people have their moment of grief and utter disappointment at not getting to the moon, but then they get to work. They gather every resource they have and solve problem after problem to get the crew home. As we all collectively grief over the things that are now lost to us, we can also take action, as we’re already seen with mass protests over police brutality and systematic racism.
An Apollo 13 re-watch may not be the obvious wakeup call we need as a society right now, but it’s an entertaining reminder that there can be good in us as a species. The goals and plans we used to have may be out of reach now, but disappointment in our personal lives can make us realize there are more important missions, like making the future brighter for all mankind.