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Feb 22, 2010 at 4:25pm | Filed Under “Hollywood History S...

“Apollo 13”

Less than a year after Apollo 11 introduced a world where man had walked on the moon, NASA was far from finished sending its finest back, even if the rest of civilization was losing interest. In 1995, the world took interest again in the space program, thanks to Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's APOLLO 13. Where other films have failed to remain faithful to the record, this one sure hit the mark in a script written by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinart. The film carefully details the doomed mission with a commitment to the truth. NASA and historians alike were pleased with Howard's effort, with some even suggesting that the tension wasn't heightened enough for a typical movie drama. Despite an ending everybody already knew, the film was a great success with moviegoers, grossing $334 million worldwide. This was in part the result of the talent involved. But also responsible was the film's genuine handling of an historic event, allowing the facts of the story to speak for themselves.

The film opens on July 20, 1969. A gathering at Jim Lovell's household watches the landmark moments transpire as the eagle touches down and Neil Armstrong steps out onto the surface of the moon. Lovell (Tom Hanks), who had commanded Apollo 8's orbit of the moon, looks on with a hope that he may one day follow in those famous footsteps. Only a few months later, he gets his chance on Apollo 13. Alongside Lovell is his crew of Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton). But just days before the April 11, 1970 launch, Mattingly is forced out of the mission, having been exposed to the measles. Replaced by Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), Apollo 13 launches as scheduled. But problems soon arise when an oxygen tank blows. Flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) begins leading the crew from Houston's Mission Control. His team works tirelessly as the world begins to take notice, soon rapt in the drama unfolding thousands of miles away in outer space. The crew loses the moon, and they're also losing oxygen. At grips with one another, in danger of carbon dioxide poisoning and a reentry speed that could kill them, the crew bands together, thanks to Mattingly, now simulating methods and techniques to save their lives down at Mission Control. Miraculously, the capsule lands safely in the Pacific Ocean as the nation lets out cheers and one tremendous sigh of relief.

Howard and Grazer first became interested in the story before Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger even completed their book. In fact, it was merely a 10-page outline when the producers bought the rights to what would become "Lost Moon." Howard knew that in order to do the story justice, there would be much to research and specific individuals to consult if he wanted to get things right. So he met with Lovell, Haise, Mattingly, and scores of other Apollo astronauts including Buzz Aldrin and Pete Conrad. Howard recalls,

"We were also able to orchestrate an incredible reunion of many of the mission controllers from Apollo 13 in the actual Mission Control room, including Chris Kraft, one of the space agency's founders, and flight directors Glynn Lunney and Gene Kranz. The insights we gained from that afternoon and evening had a huge impact on our movie."

Devoted to an honest representation of space flight, some of Howard's most impressive sequences were those filmed in NASA's KC-135 zero-gravity simulator, or, the "Vomit Comet." Roughly twenty-three seconds of weightlessness is achieved in this plane that flies in a parabolic arc between 30,000 and 36,000 feet. All of the weightless scenes were filmed during the KC-135 dives, achieving a realism never before seen in a major motion picture.

Flight director Gene Kranz covers his personal experience with Apollo 13 in his book "Failure Is Not an Option." His words echo those of Ed Harris in the film, a role for which Harris earned an Academy Award nomination. In his own account, Kranz is always a confident man in charge, not once believing the crew wouldn't return safely. He confirms that the team at Mission Control worked continuously for about eighty hours, and goes so far as to admit that he wept when Lovell, Haise, and Swigert landed unharmed in the ocean (we don't see Ed Harris shed any tears in the film). Much of Kranz's account lines up with what is seen in the movie, but some of Howard's Mission Control sequences were challenged.

Joe Pappalardo, while an associate editor of Smithsonian's Air & Space Magazine, wondered just accurate APOLLO 13 was. He specifically questioned Howard's dramatic reentry sequence, among other things. One BBC reporter dared to call the reentry procedure "familiar." As Pappalardo found, Kranz couldn't let this slide. "Power and water were critical, we did an emergency trajectory correction maneuver, and a battery was predicted to fail about the time the chutes came out. Nothing about the reentry was routine in Mission Control." The blackout period was also suspicious to viewers. It's an agonizing scene in the film, one that seems to last longer than it should. Kranz had an answer for this also. "Per my mission log it started at 142:39 and ended at 142:45--a total of six minutes," Kranz relates. "Blackout was 1:27 longer than predicted...Toughest minute and a half we ever had."

APOLLO 13 is mostly consistent with "Lost Moon" as well. Howard captured many of the events that Lovell and Kluger recount. Among them are the nature in which Lovell is awarded the flight, the broadcast to Mission Control (which the astronauts believed was being televised), the oxygen escaping from the tank visible through the window, the Lunar and Command Modules' freezing conditions, Lovell's crucial guidance-coordinate calculating, the swing around the moon, the CO2 threat, and the nerve-racking plunge back into earth's atmosphere.

But even in a film revered for its fact keeping, some details were pointed out as false. Pappalardo reminds us that in the 2005 10th Anniversary DVD of the film, Lovell and his wife Marilyn detail several inaccuracies including the inflated role of astronaut Ken Mattingly (whose work is an amalgamation of efforts undertaken by several astronauts and engineers), exaggerated doubts about Swigert's role in the mission, and the fact that the engine burn that corrected their course was not, as the movie showed, aimed in the direction of Earth.

Kranz confirms in his book the diminished magnitude of Mattingly's role by mentioning him only once in regard to APOLLO 13. Howard would have us believe that a previously disgruntled Mattingly almost single handedly conceives methods through trial and error by which to return the crew safely to earth. This makes for poetic justice, but is not exactly the way it happened.

The Hollywood Reporter noted in 1998 that the film "impressed NASA insiders and ignited interest in NASA with a new generation." Howard, Grazer, and Hanks "presented the true space odyssey of Lovell, Haise and Swigert with an unprecedented dedication to detail." But the article also published the top 10 "snafus" that NASA spotted in the movie. Most were technical (Jim Lovell's license plate number, items and albums seen that had not yet been invented or released, etc.). Though three of the ten confirm the film taking liberty to make the events more dramatic:

1. Mattingly did not watch the launch from his Corvette near the launch pad (he was in Mission Control in Houston, where he remained for the duration of the flight). In fact, no one was permitted within three miles of the pad.

2. Mattingly did not devise the power-up sequence for reentry--John Aaron did.

3. Ed Smylie (not in the film) the inventor of the lithium hydroxide adapter, which scrubbed the CO2 out of the atmosphere in the Lunar Module, had already come up with the idea as he headed back to NASA after the explosion. The film depicts the engineers dumping the spacecraft materials onto a table with little time to think of a way to rid the module of the poisonous gas.

Despite its minor flaws, APOLLO 13 is widely regarded as one of the more historically accurate major studio releases. Author and historian Joseph Roquemore lists it among his favorites in his book of over 350 films, "History Goes to the Movies: A Viewer's Guide to the Best (and Some of the Worst) Historical Films Ever Made." No, Lovell doesn't mention any initial blame cast on Swigert when things went wrong (they believed they had been hit by an asteroid). Nor is there any indication that tensions ran thick amongst the three men as hope began to slip away. Ron Howard and company only adjusted a select few of the facts to make their movie experience worthy of the nine Oscar nominations it received. And in doing so, they proved that truth is just as dramatic, or in this case, just as unbelievable, as the wildest of fiction.

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  • 03/12/2011 at 1:06pm


    Here in Texas we have an annual interscholastic academic competition for secondary school students in social studies and this year's topic is the space race. The film our competing students need to view and be able to write about is (no surprise) Apollo 13. After several months of reading the script, studying the Apollo missions and then watching the film, most of my students who've watched the film feel it offers a better and more accurate look at the intricacies of space travel much more effectively than The Right Stuff (we read the book, however).

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  • Marcy
    11/14/2010 at 10:40am


    Did you not think the John Adams mini-series historically correct?

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  • Badger
    10/18/2010 at 10:35am


    I had the opportunity to meet Commander Lovell once and asked him his opinion about the historical accuracy of the film, and he said that, aside from the tense scene between Bacon and Paxton's characters, he felt it was maintained the facts and emotional integrity of the story.

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  • losthistory
    10/10/2010 at 9:06am


    My husband is a history buff,and we watch so many films.Accurate films are one area I think history has it's own drama and passion that only a few directors came bring to film,to make the person feel like they are there in the moment.

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  • Filmbuff1776
    10/08/2010 at 4:16pm


    This is a really great film for many reasons. Any time Ron Howard and Brian Grazer team up, you're going to have a phenominal movie. Then you have such an amazing cast as Tom Hanks, Gary Siniese, Ed Harris, Kevin Bacon, Bill Baxton, Xander Berkley, this movie was bound to be a great american classic.

    Not only did Howard capture the importance of the Nasa and the Apollo 13 mission, but also with what was going on at home, with the family members, the media, etc.

    I haven't seen a movie this good about the American Space Program since The Right Stuff.

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