"It is man, not mere machines in space, that captures the imagination of the world." - Lyndon Johnson

I'm a sucker for movies which show us reaching for the impossible, to trascend our earthly boundaries and soar for the stars. Apollo 13 is one of the greatest movies I have ever seen about the space program, and the brave, triumphant, and resourceful souls who achieve the miraculous, simply by being the best at what they can be. We shot them at the moon in steel buckets, using custom computers "which fit into a single room". And yet, their triumph is far from technological, it remains human ever to the last breath.

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The film is a telling of a "successful failure"; the Apollo 13 astronauts (Jim Lovell - Tom Hanks, Jack Swigert - Kevin Bacon, and Fred Haise - Bill Paxton) survive, but fail to reach the Moon. Ron Howard's greatest work is a telling of single-minded men overcoming the odds both on the spacecraft, and the chain-smoking stressed out minds of NASA back in Mission Control, Houston. They work out crucial calculations on slide-rules, the astronauts flying blind and weightless. Watch the scenes where the Mission Control geeks fumble around trying to figure out how to solve the major issues with power, breathable air, trajectory, all the while desperate not to disappoint Gene Kranz (a memorable and intense Ed Harris). The scenes involving resequencing the control module's startup program to squeeze "enough power to run the coffee machine for nine hours" into enough to get them home safely. It shouldn't be suspenseful, but Howard mines it brilliantly.

Ron Howard's other great achievement in this film is not telling the story, but the lavish fusion of the visuals in a fashion that scrapes the jaw on the ground. Take the standout liftoff sequence, built up through scrapes of information and slight nods towards the spacecraft, but as we see it on the launchpad, the camera frames it as our ticket to the stars, a being of awe. The impact is not unlike the intelligence-imbibing gifts of the monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The similar set-ups reinforce the dawning of a new age of man. The space age.

And indeed, we respect it as we do, as the countdown draws to a close, the camera cuts between the astronauts, in a heady mixture of excitement and apprehension. The mighty engines fire, ignite, and a cacophony of power shoots from them like tendrils of a god's breath. It's a magnificently realised scene, the obsessively recreated mission to the Moon to the spectacular labour fruits.

Shooting many of the weightless scenes in NASA's "Vomit Comet", an aircraft which creates weightlessness through parabolic descent. Of course, these flights are not enough to get all the takes for all the shots in space, so director of photography Dean Cundey cannily frames the action so the actors perform the necessary slight movements to suggest zero-gravity through careful planning. The outer computer graphics shots, a revelation at the time, still hold up today, even enough when scanned and scaled up to IMAX proportions.

It's one of those stories which shouldn't work as a piece of suspense, but it does... and it's riveting. Apollo 13 is one of my favourite films, it's one of those films that stirs my sense of discovery, as well as plunder our collective dreams. It is a stirring, triumphant entertainment.

Reviewed on: 20 Mar 2007
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Oscar-winning drama about an ill-fated moon mission.
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Angus Wolfe Murray *****

Director: Ron Howard

Writer: Bill Broyles, Al Reinert

Starring: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, Mary Kate Schellhardt, Emily Ann Lloyd, Miko Hughes, Max Elliott Slade, Jean Speegle Howard

Year: 1995

Runtime: 140 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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