For all but a handful of earthlings, outer space is experienced via the television set, where thrilling, albeit snowy, pictures of moon walks held the world in thrall during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Which may be the reason Apollo 13, director Ron Howard’s scrupulously accurate re-creation of the ill-fated 1970 moon mission, plays so well on video.
There are subtler factors at work in Howard’s movie, too. While remaining true to the nuts and bolts of the story and successfully creating suspense out of a real-life scenario to which everyone knows the ending, Apollo 13 also cannily doles out the comforts of nostalgia. The first voice we hear in the movie is that of beloved Uncle Walter (Cronkite, that is), and the first time we see Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell, he’s driving a sleek 1970 Corvette. Conspicuous in their absence are the Vietnam War (never mentioned) and then President Richard Nixon (never mentioned by name). Howard places the Apollo 13 mission (which was yawned at by the media until a blown oxygen tank placed its crew in danger) in something of an historical vacuum.
So, too, do most of the video documentaries about the space program released or re-promoted in the wake of Apollo 13’s success, among them The Apollo Legacy and Apollo 13: ”Houston, We’ve Got a Problem.” An infusion of context outside of the space program proper suggests that Apollo, and NASA in general, were not so much victims of media indifference as of the ever-fluctuating national mood. After our initial ebullience over the new frontiers conquered by NASA, the tenor of the times eventually turned to despair and doubt over such terrestrial concerns as the war and the counterculture.
The CNN-produced Legacy doesn’t take such considerations into account, but instead concentrates on how the post-Cold War era is making forays into space increasingly international affairs. Fairly bland and dry, the most provocative thing it offers is a bizarre sound bite from late astronaut Gus Grissom’s widow, grousing about how her husband died trying to beat the Russians into space and how it’s a shame that now we’re sharing our technology with them.
As uninspiring as it is, at least Legacy is a professional piece of work. ”Houston, We’ve Got a Problem,”] by contrast, is in the grand tradition of the cheap video cash-in. The tape is packaged with an ultra-chintzy metal ”commemorative pin,” and a shoddy extended-play version squeezes half an hour of footage onto 10 minutes’ worth of tape. Hastily assembled out of documentary material, it mostly consists of static shots of guys sitting around Mission Control looking concerned while the exchanges between the astronauts and the earthbound technicians play over the soundtrack. A few shots demonstrate the accuracy of Howard’s film: The makeshift device used to clean the air on the craft looks the same in both depictions, and some actors playing Mission Control honchos are uncanny doubles for their real-life counterparts.
Howard’s movie tells its story with an enthusiasm that confirms what he and Hanks told the press about growing up as space nuts. It celebrates the spirit of adventure that NASA represented to them, as well as camaraderie, teamwork, and the often-unsung heroism of the techno-nerd, which led some critics to dismiss Apollo 13 as a ”boys and their toys” movie. Unfortunately, the women in Apollo 13 are wives and girlfriends with nothing much to do but look worried and have scary dreams, but hey, that’s a matter of historical record, and it’s too bad — the scenes between Lovell and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) are the dreariest in the movie. As for the rest, it’s an occasionally dazzling display of special effects (no NASA footage was used), brisk storytelling, and excellent ensemble acting. While Hanks does a solid job, this role isn’t the sort of tour de force opportunity that wins Oscars. But that’s not why he made this movie. By showing us where we’ve been, he and Howard seem to be asking ”Where do we go from here?” B+