A movie about astronauts — Pauline Kael once called them walking apple pies — raises visions of flag-waving and the gung-ho sentimentality we expect from director Ron Howard (Cocoon, Parenthood). Well, surprise. Howard lays off the manipulation to tell the true story of the near-fatal 1970 Apollo 13 mission in painstaking and lively detail. It's easily Howard's best film.
Cmdr. Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) and co-pilots Jim Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) are on their way to a lunar landing — the third in NASA history — when a tank of compressed liquid oxygen explodes in the spacecraft. To avoid death by freezing or suffocation, the three men squeeze into the ship's lunar lander, basically a tin can that might keep two men alive for two days. It will take four days to get them back — that is, the men aren't incinerated on reentering the Earth's atmosphere.
Houston, we have a problem," Lovell tells mission control, headed by Gene Kranz (Ed Harris in ironman mode). It's a typical understatement from Lovell, whose 1994 book, Lost Moon (written with Jeffrey Kluger), formed the basis of the screenplay by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert. Hanks gives another great performance — instinctive and assured. He humanizes the hardware and the space-speak, shows feeling in Lovell's scenes with his children and wife, Marilyn (a touching Kathleen Quinlan), and subtly draws us into the heartache of a dedicated man who won't fulfill his dream to set foot on the moon. There is nothing showy in the Philadelphia and Forrest Gump mode in what Hanks does here, yet his acting as the unassuming Lovell ranks with his most impressive work.
Bacon and Paxton also do wonders in fleshing out their characters with an assist from script doctor John Sayles. Gary Sinise is superb as Ken Mattingly, the pilot whose exposure to measles knocked him out of the flight in favor of the less-experienced Swigert. Sitting in a flight simulator, Mattingly tries to figure out a way to get his buddies home. Though the trio's safe return is historical fact, Howard and editors Michael Hill and Daniel Hanley build nail-biting tension in the crosscutting from ship to mission control. The you-are-there feeling is intensified by cinematographer Dean Cundey's documentary realism. It all adds up to a triumph of stirring storytelling and heart-stopping suspense.
Howard doesn't soar to the satirical heights of The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman's film of the Tom Wolfe best seller about the space program. But his view is cleareyed The public grew cynical about the space program when the government used it as a costly political PR tool, and boredom set in after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969. Boredom was never in the picture for those who risked their lives exploring a dream. In honoring a failed mission, Apollo 13 celebrates the rebel part of the American character that won't accept boundaries. Bob Dole may not see this as the right stuff. That's no excuse for the rest of us.