Friday, April 15, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Apollo 13 (1995) 2h 22m

On Sunday, 17 April, at 6:30pm, Film Club Phnom Penh checks that its carry-bags are secure around its shoulders and its hands are wrapped securely around the safety bar, as it embarks down the gentle start-slope for the ride of its young life, Ron Howard's soaring masterpiece of technical achievement and immutable emotional resonance, *Apollo 13*, starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, Chris Ellis, Jean Speegle Howard, Clint Howard, and Capt. James Arthur Lovell, Jr, USN O6-SpecDty (ret.).  

Our gracious and long-suffering host gets a lot of mileage out of reminding me from time to time that "nerds are cool" -- though goodness knows I can't imagine who she might be thinking of when she does. And yes, nerds are indeed cool: It's an axiom on which our entire platform has depended and will, I hope, continue to succeed. But taken by itself the conviction that nerds are cool doesn't gift us with Apollo 13. To get us there, we needed maestro director Ron Howard's innate understanding of another, equally important axiom. Schmaltz is underrated. Especially when you're at the movies.

We know the story by now: A third moon-mission bearing the number 13 lifts off from Cape Canaveral with three astronauts aboard—Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and backup Command Module Pilot Jack Swaggart (Kevin Bacon), while original Pilot Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinese) sits grounded in Houston on suspicion that he will soon contract the measles. It’s a routine mission to whatever extent any mission outside of earth’s gravity could possibly be thought of as routine. 

When, on the third day out (April 13), an explosion cripples the spacecraft, what was supposed to be a voyage so banal and un-inspired that the networks refused even to cover it becomes a global vigil in which all stops are pulled to do whatever can be done on the ground to bring the astronauts home. “The President wants odds,” Deke Slayton (Chris Ellis) tells Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) as they quietly confer over his console at Mission Control. “What do I tell him, one chance in three?” To which Christopher Kraft (Joe Spano) replies unbidden, “I don't think they're that good.”

Most people don't know just how not-that-good the odds really were, but the astronauts did. “We were looking for a trajectory that intersected with the earth's path in some way,” the real Jim Lovell once told a documentary interviewer. “What we didn't want was to become an orbiting memorial to the space program for all time.” 

This is how not-that-good it was, friends: The three men, trapped in an all but impossibly confined and quickly freezing space, weighing the alternatives of a slow death in orbit or a quick one in the atmosphere, and then calling-down their preference for the quick one. That anything different happened, in the end, is a literal monument to the guile and dedication of some of the smartest and most zealously committed nobodies in the history of humankind.

So how do you tell a story like this one? It’s compelling for what it was, of course, but the trap of that starting-point is that its ending-point is available to any kid who’s heard of Wikipedia. How do you make it not just compelling, but involving? 

Perhaps you start with Faulkner, who wrote that for every southerner it is always possible to imagine himself standing in ranks in a Pennsylvania field on an early July afternoon in 1863, the flags not yet out of their casings, before the war was going to be lost. It happens that a great and consequential war was about to be lost in the United States in the 1970s as well—not just a physical one, but one over the very cohesion of what it meant to be American. From Vietnam to Kent State to unprecedented racial strife and the crisis in the Middle East, no one who came home to the evening news during this time could have anticipated living through one of the most collective and universalizing crises of their lives. 

With that simple awareness, Howard’s prescription for telling this story was as bounded by circumstance as an actual marching order: What you have to do, if you’re going to tell this story in a way that transports us back, is you have to tell it cheesy. You have to gently overplay the family emotions, and the crane shots, and the dry-witted Houston badinage, and the soundtrack—everything about the story needs just that extra little bit of schmaltz. Just as we did as we lived through it.   

Of course you also have to tell it in a way that works cinematically, and that is never going to be easy when it comes to pre-CGI-era pictures about traveling to space. Fortunately for us, Howard is a bona fide creative genius, and nowhere does his own star shine anywhere near this bright. 
This may not be true of all great films—even all the great films on this list—but what makes this one worthy of an earlier claim to my top overall spot is the total, absolute, unwavering suspension of disbelief: There comes a time in each viewer's experience of this movie, when the very idea that we are sitting in comfy seats on the ground simply and unceremoniously leaves us. For me that moment comes just after liftoff, as the spacecraft is climbing out. We see an interior shot of the command module, the rumble everywhere around us, with a clear view of the instrument cluster. And there is just enough shake, just enough terror, just enough mechanized life to the thing, to let me know that I'm on the ride of my life. I wept like a baby when I first saw that moment in a theater—and I was on a freaking date.

Inspired genius abounds in this one, suffusing even the seemingly minor details with as much timely creativity as Howard's unfailing loyalty to the historical record would abide. His decision to crane-shoot the scenes at Mission Control, providing us the very sort of un-grounded, call-to-greatness vibe experienced by the controllers themselves, is but one example. The pitch-perfect performance of Jean Speegle Howard as Lovell's aging mother Blanche, is another. Upon being introduced to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (tasked with keeping her preoccupied during the tension of reentry), Blanche raises her eyebrows and asks, “Are you boys in the space program too?”

Then there is the zero-G footage—which actually comprises far less of the film than our credulous brains would lead us to suspect (much of what looks like zero-G is instead good actors, planted firmly on the ground, swaying rhythmically). The true weightless shots were accomplished by building a second command module and a second LEM inside a zero-G training plane, meaning that each shot could only last a few seconds and could not be immediately re-taken if it didn't go right, a fact that only added to the realism and tension of the actors' performances.

The set for Mission Control, meanwhile, had been replicated from the real one to such exacting standards that the real Gene Kranz would leave the set at the end of each day in his capacity as creative consultant, only to find himself startled anew by the absence of an elevator to take him “down” to a Houston parking lot. 

Shortly after this movie came out on video I had occasion to stroll the aisles of one of those icky big-box electronic stores, noticing in passing that one of the end-cap displays was playing Apollo 13 as its demonstrator. When those first desperate moments of emergency broke over the astronauts, every single customer in the store—and most of the staff—ceased whatever they were doing and crowded around the screen, as if this were really happening and we were really standing there, in a store someplace, terrified for the safety of our three brave astronauts. They say millions of people missed their trains when John Glenn lifted off for the first time; well, tens of people were made late for their next errand by watching a movie depiction of a crisis for which every last one of us knew the outcome. That, friends, that is the brilliance that we prepare ourselves to relish at the conclusion of this weekend. 

I hope everyone will make a special effort to join us Sunday, April 17, at 6:30, for this thrilling and enthralling triptick of technical prowess and heart-plucked inspiration. I can absolutely, positively guarantee you won’t regret it. Schmaltz and all.

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