Notwithstanding the kicking he deserved for The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, Ron Howard remains a deeply underrated filmmaker. Even at his critical and commercial peak he was dismissed as 'Spielberg-lite', being able to achieve that same awkward emotional moment but without the heart-stopping spectacle to get away with it. But Apollo 13 defies all such snootiness, being both a damn fine docudrama and an action film which gives Jurassic Park a run for its money.
The comparison between Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard is not entirely misplaced. Apart from their common desire to pull on our heartstrings, both learned their trade in low-budget exploitation filmmaking: Spielberg made Duel for ABC television, while Howard made Grand Theft Auto for Roger Corman. This background in low-budget, rough-around-the-edges movie-making not only taught these directors to work fast and cheaply, but showed them how to tell a dramatically interesting story as entertainingly and efficiently as possible.
But whereas Spielberg has often come a cropper in his more 'serious' dramatic works, Howard has more often than not managed to maintain a balance between profundity and popcorn thrills. In Apollo 13 he pulls off the same trick that Alan J. Pakula managed on All The President's Men - namely taking an event whose outcome is well-known and wringing out huge amounts of tension, so that the truth becomes more extraordinary than any fiction. So successful was Howard in this that after one of the test screenings, one audience member responded that they hated the film, criticising the unbelievable "Hollywood ending" in which everyone made it back alive.
Where All The President's Men created tension through conflicting information and the political pressure on journalists, Apollo 13 begins by planting in the audience's mind small seeds of doubt about the mission. Some of this is obvious, with the astronauts joking about taking a pig into space to combat the bad luck of the number 13. But other scenes are equally effective at making us feel uneasy about the fortunes of Jim Lovell and his crew. Individually, Marilyn losing her ring in the shower or Ken Mattingly getting the measles wouldn't be enough to get us worried. But Howard structures these moments as milestones on the countdown to disaster; because we don't pick up on everything the first time round, the pay-off still comes as a surprise.
When this tensions spills over into space, with the arguments over who or what caused the explosion, the film interposes docudrama was old-school sci-fi. In amidst all the procedural dialogue and the individual races against time, we get a number of touching fantasy sequences which use outer space to focus on inner space. In one such sequence, Tom Hanks imagines himself walking on the moon; in a scene reminiscent of The Ninth Configuration, Howard contrasts the silent awe of the moon's surface with the quiet despair on Lovell's face from inside the lunar module.
The production team of Apollo 13 made every effort to make the film as factually accurate as possible, right down to using the mission transcripts as the basis for all the dialogue. Under other circumstances you might expect the finished film to be tedious, something which would avoid the wrath of NASA purists but have no way in for the casual viewer. But Apollo 13 is completely populist and extraordinarily light on its feet; you get the sense that it was made as a labour of love, rather than just out of duty to get the facts right.
During the production, NASA trained the three main actors about all the controls of the lunar module, making Tom Hanks memorise the functions of all 500 buttons on the control panel. After this the module set was built inside a fully functioning fixed-wing aeroplane, which would fly parabola flights to create weightlessness for 30 seconds at a time. It took over 600 such flights to get 4 hours of useable footage.
This approach to shooting is what makes Apollo 13 a great film rather than a good one. On the one hand, it demonstrates Howard's commitment to his actors - unsurprisingly, considering that's how he started out. By recreating weightlessness, he gives Hanks et al the chance to relax into their roles which they wouldn't get from being winched around in harnesses or jumping around against green-screen. On the other hand, these scenes are technically superb because of the choice of camera angles. Because shooting could take place on any angle and drift around at will, we feel like an active, curious observer, allowing things to unfold more naturally than if we were rooted to the spot.
These scenes are complimented by the brilliant cinematography. The film is shot by Dean Cundey, John Carpenter's long-time cinematographer whose only previous brush with space was on the little-known 1980 B-movie Galaxina. Despite this, he seems at home amongst the stars, achieving the perfect shades of white and black inside and outside the Apollo rocket. Special kudos should be accorded to the way in which the real-life footage of the rocket and actors is merged with the CG and model work showing the flailing exterior. It looks completely seamless, and unlike a lot of CG-heavy films the use of naked flames looks and feels realistic.
Apollo 13 also solves the problem of so many fact-based dramas, namely the integration of stock or archive footage and the dramatic reconstructions. In Howard's later film, Frost/Nixon, there was a mismatch between the two where characters crossed over; footage of the real-life Richard Nixon would feed into scenes of Frank Langella playing him, and no matter how good the performance was, the effect was jarring. Howard makes a clear effort this time around, shooting the TV interviews and newscasts on grainier stock so that it actually looks like old TV. We therefore believe that the passing comments of Dick Cavett and Walter Cronkite are coming from the same era (indeed, the latter actually came in to re-dub his classic broadcasts).
But there is more to Apollo 13 than just the mission. The film takes an intelligent look at the level of public interest in the moon landings, as Howard contrasts the optimism towards Apollo 11 with the gradual disengagement of the American people only a year later. Again this is explored through subtle hints, whether it's the TV stations not showing Lovell's broadcast live, Marilyn mentioning she might not come to the launch, or Lovell's daughter being more bothered about The Beatles breaking up. The film touches on the idea that the public only become interested in something when things go horribly wrong - a comment which seems all the more biting in today's car-crash celebrity culture.
The performances in Apollo 13 are little short of superb. Following on from back-to-back Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks continues to embody the likeable American everyman even in the most extraordinary of circumstances. He is totally believable as Jim Lovell, and is complimented beautifully by his co-stars Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon, who both give the best performances of their respective careers. On the ground Ed Harris remains eternally underrated as Flight Director Gene Kranz, and there is a very fine supporting performance by Gary Sinise, who would collaborate with Hanks again on The Green Mile.
Apollo 13 is one of Ron Howard's finest achievements and remains a remarkable piece of filmmaking. The sterling work of the cast is beautifully complimented by his direction, which is technically proficient, innovative and deeply involving. There are moments in which the sentimentality doesn't quite work - the grandmother, for instance, is played too broadly and feels like a screenwriter's device. But as an overall piece which straddles fact and fiction, it is very hard to dislike and a hard act to follow.