I think that I’ve only seen Apollo 13 twice which is a bit of an oversight given my love for The Right Stuff, Wings of Honneamise, Rocket Girls, Planetes[1], etc. Last night with friends was the second time, and it only emphasised how much of an oversight that was[2].

Apollo 13 looks fabulous, is supported by superb sound design, and feels real throughout. If I didn’t already know the ending the tension generated by Ron Howard’s deft direction would be almost unbearable[3].

The reality is enhanced both by the fact that several scenes were filmed on the Vomit Comet, and by the intimacy of the small sets for Odyssey and Aquarius. Given that Apollo 13 is over 20 years old, I suspect that use of CGI was sharply limited, and that many of the exterior space shots were drawn from the Hubble Space Telescope or similar.

Another key factor in the reality of Apollo 13 is the exacting level of detail[4] applied throughout.

This led to a number of “oh yeah, that happened”, or “yes, it really worked that way” moments that reinforced the illusion that I was watching what really happened. These included

  • Deke Slayton’s role in assigning crews,
  • The tragic irony of Gus Grissom’s death being partly due to modifications to the Apollo hatch design from his earlier Mercury flight,
  • The need for astronauts like Jim Lovell to take regular check flights to maintain their jet qualifications,
  • The tendency of test pilots and astronauts to be hard drinking, and fast drivers[5],
  • Gene Kranz’s mission vest,
  • Plus many others that I probably missed.

That said, there are a number of Acceptable Breaks From Reality throughout Apollo 13, and it’s worth checking out the actual history at some point to be aware of where some of the Artistic License was taken.

One bonus for fans of The Right Stuff is Ed Harris, who played John Glenn in The Right Stuff, appearing as flight director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13.

The casting is solid throughout – Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell, Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert, Bill Paxton as Fred Haise, and Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly all deliver good performances.

One possible criticism is the omission of Margaret Hamilton who was critical to the programming of the Apollo computers. It must be said that Apollo 13 is a very male film, and Margaret Hamilton is arguably the key example for why it didn’t have to be.

That criticism aside, Apollo 13 is a fabulous film, and one that I’m likely to rewatch a bit more frequently now that I have it on Blu-Ray. 🙂

[1] And, yes, one day I will return to the Planetes episodic reviews, I’m just not in the mental space for that level of detailed analysis right now.

[2] Similarly I’ve only seen October Sky once, and that oversight may also get corrected soon.

[3] I may have mentioned this on twitter during a brief pause.

[4] See the Wikipedia page for details, especially the Preproduction and props, and Cast training and filming sections.

[5] Basically all of the astronauts are shown driving American muscle/sports cars