I’m not sure how old I was at the time, but I remember a time when I was a kid and had refused to watch Apollo 13 with the rest of my family for the first time. The living room was not very far away from my bedroom, so I could still hear pretty much everything that was being said. I was playing with some toys when the movie started when two words made me drop the toys and join the rest of the family in front of the TV. I had heard the narrator in the first scene mention the name “Roger Chaffee.” My mind immediately thought of the street a couple of blocks away called Roger B. Chaffee (its full name is Roger B. Chaffee Memorial Blvd.) Being young at the time, I only knew that Roger B. Chaffee was an astronaut. In the first few seconds of Apollo 13 I found out that he had been killed in a spacecraft accident. I kept my eyes glued to the screen for the rest of the movie, hoping to find out more about the astronaut from Grand Rapids.
Of course, Apollo 13 is not the story of Roger B. Chaffee, but that brief prologue served as my innocent introduction to the story of Jim Lovell’s fateful trip into space. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon play the ship’s three crew members: Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert. Gary Sinise plays fellow astronaut Ken Mattingly, Ed Harris plays flight director Gene Krantz and Chris Ellis portrays the Mercury Seven legend Deke Slayton. Under the direction of Ron Howard, this all-star ensemble captures of gripping story of the Apollo 13 flight from three angles: the astronauts in space trying to stay alive, the confines of Mission Control, where Krantz and his team struggle to tackle all the obstacles that keep popping up, and Lovell’s and Haise’s families as they huddle together in prayer and suspense. Ultimately, NASA is able to bring the astronauts home safely and Gene Krantz came through on his promise to not lose any Americans in space on his watch.
As in any film based on real-life events, dramatic license is taken at certain parts of the film in order to make it have the effect that Howard intended, but there are also several instances that I think the producers went too far with. For example, there is one brief scene that shows Lovell’s wife Marilyn taking a shower and having her wedding ring slip off and disappear down the drain. This scene lasts only a few seconds and is never mentioned, verbally of physically, again in the film. In actuality, the real Marilyn Lovell was able to quickly retrieve the ring after it got caught in the drain. There was really no reason for that scene to have been included in the film at all.
NCIS’s Joe Spano appears in the film as a fictional, unnamed “NASA Administrator” and Xander Berkeley another fictional character named “Henry,” who apparently is a member of NASA’s public affairs office. With so many real-life counterparts that could have been portrayed in the film, I wonder why the decision was made to create totally new characters instead of pulling from the real world. The book Lost Moon, which served as the basis for the film, has so many names and positions mentioned that could easily have filled in these roles. It might just be mere fan rambling on my part, but if the film is based on reality then they should have pulled those positions from reality.
The only other dramatic departure that I am uncomfortable with in the movie is the way the film and certain characters look at Kevin Bacon’s Swigert character. The movie treats him as an untested rookie that might or might not have been up to the task of being the command module pilot. For instance, the film has a scene where Lovell, Haise, and the rest of mission control are worried that Swigert would not be able to dock with the lunar module. In real-life, Swigert had trained extensively as part of the back-up crew for such a maneuver, and even if he had not been able to dock for whatever reason then Lovell or Haise could have easily done it themselves. The real Jim Lovell did not seem to mind this little sub-plot, but I think that it is a sad dent in the memory of Jack Swigert, who had passed away long before the movie went into production.
What is also interesting to note is that the majority of Ron Howard’s family appeared at some point or another during the film. His brother had a key role as Sy, one of the mission controllers. His mother played Lovell’s excited and impatient mother, Blanche. His father briefly appears in a couple of scenes as a priest in the Lovell’s living room, and his two daughters cameo in the background of one scene. I am by no means criticizing these casting choices. I mean, when you are the director you can put just about anybody you want into your film. In this case, they all did their part and played their roles as good if not better than any other actors or actresses. It is just one of those interesting bits of movie trivia that you might not have found out about unless somebody told you.
Overall, I really enjoyed this film both as a movie-lover and as space race aficionado. Apollo 13 brilliantly tells a story from three points of view and connects the viewpoints with expert efficiency. Nobody ever has to worry about forgetting the near-tragic voyage of Apollo 13 thanks to Ron Howard and his excellent cast and crew.