History Nerd's Review: Apollo 13 (1995)

"Gentlemen, at this moment, I want you all to forget the flight plan. From this moment on, we are improvising a new mission: How do we get our people home?"

Apollo 13, the third manned moon landing mission, nearly ended in tragedy after a defective oxygen tank exploded and disabled the command service module. The three astronauts, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Sweigart (Kevin Bacon), were forced to use the lunar module, designed to support two people for two days, as their refuge for the four days it took to get back to Earth. With the aid of the flight controllers and engineers back in Houston, they modified and repurposed the equipment on hand into enough of a spaceship to get them back safely.

Apollo 13 scores four out of four science books for its entertainment value. Now let's grade the history homework.

Yes, that really happened: The film gets the basic forensics of the mission correct: the oxygen tank failure, the kludging together of an adapter to use the command module's air filters in the lunar module's life support system, and the generally miserable conditions the astronauts had to endure.

Flight Director Gene Krantz (Ed Harris) really did have his wife make a new white vest for each spaceflight as a good luck charm.

Points off for: The script depicts the astronauts as a lot more emotionally upset and much more in conflict with each other than they were in real life. All three astronauts were military test pilots, the sort of people who don't let a little problem like your spaceship losing its oxygen and electrical power when you're halfway to the moon faze them.

The three course correction burns they had to make with the lunar module's engine were a lot less touch-and-go than the one course correction burn shown in the film.

There were actually three different crews of flight controllers, all of whom contributed to getting the astronauts home. Except for one brief change of shift scene, we only see Gene Krantz and the "White Team" working on everything. Other teams of individuals, such as the engineers who worked with astronaut Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) to develop the command module's re-start procedure, were represented by composite characters. This was done to keep the number of people on the screen down to something manageable so the audience could keep track of them all.

The best line in the movie is Gene Krantz declaring "Failure is not an option!" He never actually said that during the Apollo 13 mission. He did, however, use it as the title of his autobiography, so it's fair to say he agreed with the sentiment expressed.

Extra credit for: Director Ron Howard made certain that the spacecraft, equipment, computer screens, and other little details (e.g., ashtrays everywhere, flight controllers using slide rules for manual calculations) were absolutely correct.

The launch of the big Saturn V is 100% composed of visual effects shots made specifically for the film. It's so well done, however, that some NASA people who saw the film were convinced that the filmmakers had found "lost footage" of the launch buried in the archives.

The zero-gravity sequences were filmed in zero gravity, using NASA's "reduced gravity aircraft," which is affectionately nicknamed the "Vomit Comet."

The film's awesome score was composed by James Horner, who also scored The Wrath of Kahn, Titanic, Field of Dreams, Avatar, and 108 other feature films.

Additional comments: I've seen the Saturn V on display at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. However big you think a Saturn V is when you see it on the screen, it's actually bigger when you see it in person.

Final grade: 96%

3 comments:

Billie Doux said...

I loved this movie and saw it at least three times. And I read Lovell's book, too. An enjoyable review, History Nerd -- thanks. :)

NomadUK said...

So happy to see the word 'faze' spelled correctly! Add another science book!

NomadUK said...

I've seen a Saturn V at Kennedy Space Centre, and, yes, there's nothing like seeing it up close to realise how truly big it really is. Film does not do it justice.

Brian Cox, in his BBC series Human Universe, in the episode 'What's Our Future?', tours the KSC, and has the following to say about this amazing machine:-

There were two thousand, two hundred tonnes of fuel in [Stage 1 of a Saturn V rocket], and Stage 1 burnt through that in about two-and-a-half minutes. To do that, it had fuel pumps that were more powerful than a 747 at liftoff to pump 15 tonnes of fuel a second into these: the F1 engines.

Every statistic about these engines is ridiculous. in those two-and-a-half minutes, when this spacecraft was lifting off, the power generated was more than the peak electrical power generating capacity of the United Kingdom.