Tuesday, August 11, 2009

FotM: Of Moon Landings and Lucky Numbers

So, I want to talk about one of my favorite movies.

To this day, I still think that Apollo 13 is one of the most exciting films I’ve ever seen and Ron Howard’s personal best as a director. It successfully combines the history of America’s first and, to date, only unsuccessful moon mission with a spectacular blend of fine performances, nail-biting moments, and one of the finest endings I’ve seen. Interestingly, I had the chills just now as I recalled it. I wasn’t expecting that . . .

So, why is the film so exciting? A significant contributor to the sky-high level of tension in the film is the knowledge that what’s on the screen really happened to Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert. While it’s relatively easy to think of an incident like this in fairly cerebral terms, it’s a wholly different story when one is forced to consider the reality of conditions on board Apollo 13. When viewed in the light of most films involving space travel, the tasks that the astronauts faced are simple. Can’t they just tell the computer to handle things? Can’t they just send another spacecraft up to rescue them? The reality, however, is much more dynamic and infinitely more complicated. Not only did the spacecraft suffer a massive amount of damage, but the margin for error was razor thin.

That’s a big part of what makes the film so dramatic. In addition, Apollo 13 dramatizes almost everything about what transpired to return the astronauts home. As a viewer, you know how much oxygen they have. You know how many hours the crew on the ground is working to figure out the logistics of bringing them back. You know the exact amount of power that can be spared to reactivate the computers to assist with re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. Additionally, as someone who’s read Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger’s first-rate book, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, I can assure you that the film has a powerful cutman in its corner: it’s incredibly accurate.

By the end of the film, the tension's built up to the boiling point. Remarkably, you're in the exact same place as the thousands of Americans glued to their TV sets, waiting to see if the astronauts have survived re-entry. That's HUGE. How many films based on actual events of this magnitude create that much suspense? What's more is that Apollo 13 channels that suspense into one of the biggest moments of emotional release that any film has ever given me. Think of it as the type of moment that should have taken place at the end of Slumdog Millionaire.

In 2002, Ron Howard collected Oscars for directing and producing A Beautiful Mind, and a few months ago, all the buzz was about his latest film, Frost/Nixon, with a lot of people saying that it was his finest. All that said, Ron Howard has made some quality films over the course of his career, but Apollo 13 is something else entirely. It's his masterpiece.


Chris W said...

I can actually say I fully agree with you on this one. I think this is the best film Ron Howard has ever made and maybe WILL ever make. This is the film that actually got me interested in the process of filmmaking and one of the many reasons I am an unapologetic space nerd. It's so well done and intense that my father once told me he has a hard time watching it because it so perfectly captures the tension and fear of those few days.

Adam said...

WHAT? Can it be true? You and I actually agree about a movie? Amazing!

I've certainly enjoyed some of Ron Howard's other films, but this one has a conceptual mastery that marries perfectly with the emotional investment that it inspires from the audience in a way that just don't. While neither one of us lived through the events portrayed in the film, I think that we both feel as though that that's what it MUST have been like. I'll never forget watching it for the first time. My mom was up on her feet pacing the floor during the re-entry scene. When the parachutes open and the Control Center goes nuts, she burst into tears. . . and she lived through it.

In light of all the praise it got, personally, I felt that "Frost/Nixon" was a bit of a letdown. Solid film? Sure. Amazing? Nope. What did you think?

Megan said...

I LOVE Apollo 13 and this has reminded me that I need to add it to my DVD collection sooner rather than later. The editing in this film still astounds me, and how you direct a film while trying to get your actors to concentrate on lines in the "vomit comet"? No idea how he did that.

I LOVED Frost/Nixon though, but I don't think any of his films hold a candle to Apollo 13. People saying F/N was his best is just the typical statements of people with short term memories who think the latest is always the greatest.

Chris W said...

I too thought FROST / NIXON was brilliant. I think it may be the second best film of his career but yeah, nothing compares to APOLLO 13. Part of the reason FROST / NIXON did it for me was the writing. I think Peter Morgan is one of the best writers in the biz at the moment but I think years from now APOLLO 13 will be viewed as Howard's opus.

Anonymous said...

Haven't seen Frost/Nixon yet but I also think that Howard hit his peak here since I haven't been a fan of some of his more recent stuff.