Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Sixteen

#16 — Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995)
There’s never any doubt about the outcome of Apollo 13. It’s not just that the troubled NASA mission it depicts is a part of history, and anyone with a cursory knowledge of the ins and outs of the space race has a sense of which excursions ended tragically and which didn’t. There’s also the basic arithmetic of Hollywood moviemaking. Productions this slick and expensive aren’t mounted with the goal of sending audiences home feeling despondent (and, though it may not be an apparent part of the film’s portfolio for someone sitting down to watch it for the first time now, they’re certainly not released in the heart of summer with the most beloved film star of the time luring fans into the air conditioned comfort of the auditorium). This is the sort of film clearly intended to stir the soul rather than trample upon the heart. With that being the case, it’s a fine measure of Ron Howard’s exemplary craftsmanship that Apollo 13 is filled with such tension. With the question “What will happen?” basically removed from the experience, Howard and his collaborators need to grab and hold attention by playing to the fall slipperier concern “How will they do it?”

In the spring of 1970, three astronauts were launched into space with the moon as their destination. It may have initially felt routine–less than a year after the momentous moon landing, the public had seemingly already grown bored of these treks into the vastness of the ethereal frontier–but quickly became as harrowing as could be when a mechanical failure made the prospect of the men being brought home safely entirely uncertain, perhaps even unlikely. What follows are countless miracles of ingenuity as the engineers, technicians and fellow space travelers back home in Houston work ceaselessly on the escalating series of puzzles that must be solved to reunite their distant coworkers with their families and the dependable gravity of planet Earth. The film gets endless energy out of the simple drama of incredibly smart people dealing with a colossal problem as the weary, freezing pilots thousands of miles away fret and fight and overcome their own challenges to fight their way back. The screenplay credited to William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinhart (and bearing the fingerprints of a few others, including John Sayles) emphasizes the plain facts of the incident, all of the filmmakers making the correct judgment that the truth in this instance outpaces any invention. The film feels painstaking real, right down to the smoldering butts in the ashtrays at Mission Control.

It’s a form of understatement that suits Howard well. Maybe more than any of the other subsequently successful graduates of the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking (unaccredited but as fruitful as any academy that charges a tuition), Howard operates with a workmanlike sturdiness, a sense that his role is to serve the script, to tell the story, and too much fuss or flourish is a form of wastefulness. He’s not an artist demanding to be revered, he’s a guy with a job a do, just like the people on the set who are setting up lights or stringing cables. This comes through in the artful plainspokenness of the narrative, in the steady accumulation of detail, even in the pitch-perfect performance of Ed Harris as Gene Kranz, the Flight Director who practically redefines the word “resolute” with his intensely focused response to the crisis, averting disaster largely by refusing to succumb to it. In its own way, it is an appropriate mirror of his film’s subject that Howard winds up with the greatest achievement of his career by just buckling in and doing his job the best, more straightforward way he can.