Dir. Ron Howard. Starring Tom Hanks, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise.
This started because I wanted to talk about Argo. (Right now, and don’t hold me to this, the plan is to talk about Argo in conjunction with another movie of similar quality and subject matter). Argo is not a bad movie, necessarily, but I’m not sure it holds up over two viewings. Apollo 13 is a better movie, and it holds up over and over again. (I know this because I just saw Argo for the second time, and I have watched Apollo 13 probably a dozen times or more by now.) The two films, in some respects, are similar down to their position in the alphabet. Ensemble casts have to save Americans in life-threatening situations, and fast, or else the nation will lose big in their winner-take-all Cold War setting. But Apollo 13 is masterfully paced, where Argo reads like melodrama because of its pace, which follows a cliched sports movie in emphases and heart-pumping. If you call Tony Mendez “Coach,” think of Joe Stafford as the star player who refuses to buy in, and replace the Tehran airport with a stadium, it’s a movie you’ve seen a dozen times over. Argo cannot, to borrow from Hamlet, play the recorder with any particular skill; why should we think it can play a person, with all of its added intricacies and mysteries?
What I find fascinating is that Argo and Apollo 13 are both based on true stories, and yet one of them is predictable to the point of boredom, and the other is lively and exciting throughout. It’s not like either creative team was going to run out of details; both histories are taut, filled with personal concerns and international drama. There was always more material to adapt for both films, more destinations they could have gone to, more depth to be measured in the characters. If the material to adapt for both films is read as a poker game, Argo and Apollo 13 are both on pace for a straight after the flop.
It’s odd to think of an actor as being a keystone for a film’s pace, but swap the leads in Argo and Apollo 13, and I think 13 falls apart. Tom Hanks – a man whose star power is largely based on, “Please, don’t let anything else bad happen to that poor man!” – is in one of his best roles here. Hanks’ Lovell is a little different from real-life Lovell. For the real guy, the biggest lure of Apollo 13 was the chance for a command; Lovell may have spent more time in space than any other human in April 1970, but despite that experience, his signature mission was Apollo 8, where he had been Frank Borman’s command module pilot. For movie-Lovell, Apollo 8 is haunting. He and his shipmates were so close to the surface, and yet so far away. He looks up at the Moon on the night that Armstrong and Aldrin make their moonwalk and reminisces about how close he was. And one of the movie’s saddest moments takes place while Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) snap pictures of their would-be landing site; Lovell, far away from the windows, can only mutter, “I’ve seen it” while he imagines running his fingers through the dirt, looking out on the Earth, awestruck. In a writing class, we would call this moment a “hot spot,” a place where it pays to slow down and give the audience time to digest an important moment. In a movie, slowing down the pace of a film which has been hellbent on upping the stress level of the viewers for the past hour is essential but risky; cool down the audience too much and the climax will be anticlimactic, but linger too little and the audience will be exhausted. Apollo 13 plays on that line well, but it’s Hanks’ expressions in the capsule and on the surface of the Moon that make it work; it’s a microcosm of the whole film, the bitter disappointment of not being able to walk on the Moon and the grateful disbelief of being in space at all.
At one point after the accident, Swigert more or less storms into the LEM and guesses (correctly) that Mission Control still hasn’t come up with a re-entry procedure. “All right,” Lovell says, trying to mollify him, “there’s a thousand things that have to happen in order. We are on number eight. You’re talking about number six hundred and ninety-two.” One of the reasons that Apollo 13 works is that it sets itself up in the mold of “a thousand things that have to happen,” crossing off tasks from the to-do list. This shouldn’t work; most people would rather do housework for two hours than watch someone else do it for two hours. But Apollo 13 makes an important choice that other movies (looking at you again, Argo!) let go of. Instead of outlining the plan first, Apollo 13 sets up a scenario which obscures any attempt to make a long-distance plan at all. Because Apollo 13‘s mission plan is completely disrupted, the original plan is useless; because no one actually understands the situation in its totality, the only way to solve the problem is “bring the crew back to Earth,” and achieving that plan requires steps to be taken that no one could have expected even days before. There is no six-week hiatus between the explosion on the command module and the first efforts to fix the problem in Apollo 13 – if a problem is not fixed within an extremely small window, the crew dies.
One of the problems that a movie has is that everyone knows that it’s going to be somewhere between ninety and one hundred and fifty minutes. Some movies don’t reach the former benchmark, and some exceed the latter, but those films tend to be noteworthy for their length. In any event, everyone in the theater knows the film has to end at some point. A resolution has to come; plots come to a head and then back down to their conclusion. This could be a weakness, but Apollo 13 turns it into a strength. In another movie, one might well assume that saving the astronauts from carbon dioxide poisoning would be a climactic act; however, the creation of the ad hoc filter and its implementation occurs early enough that the viewer thinks, “Something worse is going to come after this.” In the simulator before the launch, Lovell quips, “That was three hours of boredom followed by seven seconds of sheer terror.” The same principle applies in the film as moment after moment that must happen, from “Main Bus B undervolt” to succcessful re-entry, seems to come after scenes which lull the viewer one way or another. The launch, while a triumph of special effects and score, is not quite heart-pumping, while even talking about the re-entry process in Mission Control is phrased as something of a relief despite the potentially cracked heat shield. The movie, rather than aiming for endless panic, reduces the tension by degrees and then ramps it up by leaps and bounds.
Although there are other show-stealing scenes in the film – one thinks of “Houston, we have a problem,” or the celebration that erupts in the MOCR when Lovell radios in – the one that does the best job of expressing pace control comes towards the end of the film. Aquarius, still functioning as the “lunar lifeboat,” has to use its engine to perform a vital course correction, or else the crew will bounce off the Earth’s atmosphere at re-entry and never be heard from again. Whether or not the engine is powerful enough to perform the correction is unknown; the crew cannot load any navigational data because that would take up far too much power which they cannot spare; the crew has, in one of the “three hours of boredom” correlates, been fighting with one another in the shadowy, cramped, cold confines of Aquarius. (It’s not boring, watching the poor fellows fight, but it’s not drawn up to raise the audience’s collective blood pressure either.) Visibly tired but willing, Lovell steps up to the primary controls with the Earth in his viewfinder, knowing that without succeeding on this step, there is no hope of their returning home alive. The music pounds as Aquarius‘ engine ignites; in a rare moment, the camera allows us to see the spacecraft rather than what’s inside, and the spacecraft shoots off wildly, almost randomly. Inside again. Swigert is keeping the time. Lovell is yelling directions, unable to adequately control the unwieldy craft that was never meant to fly like this. Back to the MOCR, where all the flight controllers can hear is Lovell’s almost rasping commands, veering towards panic, as he tries to get himself and Haise in sync. Back to Aquarius. In the last moments, he and Haise align the craft. “Shutdown!” he cries. It is a simple scene. Without adding any new elements to the film – no new character, no new visual effect, not even a new threat, because Swigert has already alerted his team to the danger – the film demands the viewer’s rapt attention. It’s the transformation of ingredients, the difference between having leftover turkey and canned vegetables and making it a Hallmark card Thanksgiving dinner. The latest movie which I would point to as masterfully paced, Mad Max: Fury Road, doesn’t even create a new scene with as few original elements. Apollo 13 is genuinely special in this realm, able to create a thrilling scene out of used parts.