Part of a continuous series of classic film reviews from some of the most eloquent, hilarious film critics from yesterday and today.
At some point, I’ll do a list of the Top 10 Movies That Celebrate Everything That Was Awesome About the United States, and when I do that, “Apollo 13″ will be on it.
I was 12 when “Apollo 13″ came to theaters. To date, I’ve probably watched “Apollo 13″ 30 or 40 times on HBO or cable. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I noticed the real, underlying purpose of “Apollo 13″ — to capture a country at its most inspired, at its apex. Sure, you had Vietnam back then, foreign policy concerns and so forth. But everything that happens in “Apollo 13″ represents the antithesis of that — a government and a nation of people still reaching for something, still extending themselves, moving forward. Not mired in the parochial drudgery of partisan conflict.
A few months ago, I was trying to find video interviews of Stanley Kubrick — of which there are few — and I stumbled on an interview with Terry Gilliam, a filmmaker I respect but don’t really like much. In it, he says he read a book about the making of Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” In that book, Gilliam says, the interviewer asks Kubrick about Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” Gilliam recites Kubrick’s quote: “‘Schindler’s List’ was about success. The Holocaust was about failure.’”
It’s a very good quote, a brilliantly concise and incisive summation, and Kubrick whipped out gems like that all the time — remarkable for a guy without a college degree. A lot of people talk about Kubrick’s visual sense, but his greatest asset was always his mind. He’s probably the smartest man to ever work in film because truly brilliant storytellers tend to become authors because you can do more with a novel than you can with a movie. Far fewer limitations.
But what Gilliam likely didn’t know was that Kubrick and Spielberg were close friends. When he died, Spielberg didn’t simply take over “A.I.” from Kubrick. Before he died, Kubrick gave him the project after realizing the material hued more toward Spielberg’s artistic sensibilities. Kubrick’s comment about “Schindler’s List” is most certainly a criticism, but it’s not an invalidation. For decades, Kubrick worked on his own Holocaust movie, “Aryan Papers,” a project he shelved after “Schindler’s List” became a monster hit and won Best Picture. In the documentary “A Life in Pictures,” Kubrick’s wife says Kubrick often feared it might be impossible to capture the Holocaust on film, to tell the story sufficiently because a movie could never convey the true horror and the enormity of what occurred. He may have been right.
But that doesn’t explain why “Schindler’s List” is bad; it just explains why he never made “Aryan Papers.” Spielberg wanted to tell one, small and essentially true story. He wanted to find something exceptionally positive in the Holocaust, a beating heart. Now, some people, including Kubrick, may question how a small success story — the redemption of one man — is relevant to the systematic murder of 6 million Jews, and they’re right to ask the question. It’s a good question. But if you want to investigate the range of the human soul, the capacity for love in human beings, I think “Schindler’s List” is a magnificent anecdote. That moment at the end when Schindler realizes — after saving more than 1,000 Jews — that his remaining possessions could have been converted into more human lives is an extraordinary scene.
When you watch that scene, Gilliam sounds less like an intelligent and challenging filmmaker and more like an idiot. If Oskar Schindler is irrelevant to the story of the Holocaust, Harriet Tubman is irrelevant to the story of American slavery. Their stories may be positive, relatively simple ones, but they’re enormously important. They’re an answer to the question, “How could people let this happen? Didn’t anyone resist?” Those stories are rare. Probably without realizing it, Gilliam is saying because they are rare they’re also irrelevant. It’s one giant pretension.
What does Spielberg have to do with Ron Howard and “Apollo 13?” Well, I think, at times, their goals have been the same. They’re positive, inspired filmmakers who tend to make movies about triumph. And, emotionally, triumph tends to be simpler than failure or collapse. Does that mean it’s less relevant or less powerful? Of course not. But that’s not what frustrated guys like Terry Gilliam would have you believe. (That said, obviously, Kubrick is better than Spielberg. But Gilliam acts like you get points for knowing that — that it means something important. He’s wrong.)
Spielberg and Howard are purely American filmmakers who tell American stories using characters who represent larger American themes — even if those themes seem less relevant and true today. Here’s a perfect example: My favorite scene in “Apollo 13″ is when the CO2 levels inside the lunar module are increasing to a point where they’ll eventually kill the astronauts. So, back in Houston, a bunch of engineers and scientists have to — in a short amount of time — invent something to reverse that using only what’s available in the module.
I could be wrong, but I would assume the guys building that converter were among the smartest around back then. NASA had never been funded better, and I’m sure it attracted top talent. Where are those guys in the United States these days?
The Silicon Valley. Guys like Sergey Brin and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. And, hey, we just made a movie about Zuckerberg — “The Social Network.” And it’s great, the best flick of the year so far.
But it’s about how much of an asshole Zuckerberg is. That’s the American perspective on these people now. How they’re dorks, outcasts, pricks and losers. I loved “The Social Network,” but there’s something a little frustrating about that. Maybe it’s because they’re billionaires, and maybe there’s something to that. I’m not entirely sure. But this country doesn’t really inspire wonder in its people anymore. The mid-’90s were a more positive and indulgent time in this country, and because of that “Apollo 13″ was enjoyed as a dramatic thriller — a great story with great acting, direction and writing. For the people who saw it, it was just as good movie. But as this country becomes more frustrated and cynical as its momentum shifts to other emerging nations such as China, India and Indonesia, I think “Apollo 13″ becomes more important. It’s like visiting Rome and seeing The Colosseum. You’re seeing the legacy of an empire at its plateau.
So, here’s the only review I ever read that touched on that. It’s no surprise it was written by Janet Maslin in The New York Times. A very good critic.
‘Apollo 13,’ a Movie for the Fourth of July
By Janet Maslin
June 30, 1995
The line of dialogue that will be best remembered from Ron Howard’s absolutely thrilling new “Apollo 13″ is a slight variation on the truth. “Houston, we have a problem,” says one of this film’s three endangered astronauts, although “Houston, we’ve had a problem” is what Jim Lovell actually said. It’s a small but important change, one more way that “Apollo 13″ unfolds with perfect immediacy, drawing viewers into the nail-biting suspense of a spellbinding true story. You can know every glitch that made this such a dangerous mission, and “Apollo 13″ will still have you by the throat.
Better even than Mr. Howard’s sure hand with this fascinating material is his film’s unexpected restraint. “Apollo 13″ understands the difference between movie bravado and real courage, and it celebrates the latter in inspiring ways that have almost gone out of style. With Tom Hanks, wonderful again, as the Everyman in the driver’s seat, “Apollo 13″ isn’t afraid of the stone-cold fear at the heart of this tale or of the intricate group effort needed to see it through. This film and its brave, believable characters are uplifting in ways that have nothing to do with a voyage to outer space.
We take it for granted today that there have been a hundred manned American space flights, and that an astronaut can remain in orbit almost unnoticed for a three-month stretch. But the weeklong adventure of the Apollo 13 crew unfolded in a very different atmosphere. In April 1970, the space program still aroused strong emotions: attention had begun to wane after the previous year’s moon walk, but the nation found itself desperately receptive to the astronauts’ unforeseen display of heroism after their flight became so perilous. “Apollo 13″ doesn’t mention Vietnam, but it doesn’t have to. The war-weary climate of that time enhances this film’s wishful, stirring faith in American know-how.
Like “Quiz Show,” “Apollo 13″ beautifully evokes recent history in ways that resonate strongly today. Cleverly nostalgic in its visual style (Rita Ryack’s costumes are especially right), it harks back to movie making without phony heroics and to the strong spirit of community that enveloped the astronauts and their families. Amazingly, this film manages to seem refreshingly honest while still conforming to the three-act dramatic format of a standard Hollywood hit. It is far and away the best thing Mr. Howard has done (and “Far and Away” was one of the other kind). Equally sound was casting his own mother (Jean Speegle Howard) as Jim Lovell’s mother, a real corker. “Are you boys in the space program, too?” she sweetly asks the film’s Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.
“Apollo 13″ makes it unsurprising that Jim Lovell (“no stranger to emergencies he,” a television commentator says) would come from sturdy stock. Mr. Lovell is presented as a quietly gung-ho commander, the kind of man who tells his wife (played brightly and affectingly by Kathleen Quinlan) that he’s going to the moon as if that’s great news. For Mr. Lovell, on whose memoir, “Lost Moon” (written with Jeffrey Kluger), the film is based, it actually was: he had come tantalizingly close to the moon on the Apollo 8 flight and enthusiastically looked forward to a lunar landing. Instead, on a mission whose original flight plan was abruptly aborted, he was lucky to come home alive.
The science behind “Apollo 13″ is detailed and specific, and the film conveys it with superb simplicity. Easy as it would have been to sling showy high-tech jargon, the screenplay (credited to William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert) is gratifyingly terse and clear. With a pitch-perfect ear for NASA syntax (“Come on, rookie, park that thing”), the film stays informative while dealing with arcane facts that became matters of life and death. You may see no more dazzling display of ingenuity all year than the authentic way the film’s NASA technicians scramble with cardboard and duct tape to make a square peg fit a round hole.
In terms of realism, nothing else here comes close to the staggering fact that some of the film’s zero-gravity scenes were shot aboard a KC-135 NASA plane on a steep parabolic orbit that earned it the nickname “vomit comet.” Some may feel that Mr. Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton, who play the astronauts so expertly, deserve something better than the usual end-of-the-year recognition for having even taken these roles.
These three stars (and their terrific backup teammates on the ground, especially Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly, an astronaut benched at the last minute because of a measles scare, and Ed Harris as the nail-spitting flight commander, Gene Kranz) capture an extraordinary verisimilitude. No film about space travel has done a more realistic job of conveying the strangeness and exhilaration of such exploits, not to mention the terror summed up by Mr. Bacon’s Jack Swigert: “If this doesn’t work, we’re not going to have the power to get home.”
Crippled by the explosion of one of its oxygen tanks as it neared the moon, the spaceship Odyssey experienced sudden electrical failures that forced the astronauts to shut it down. They took refuge in their lunar exploration module, the Aquarius, which was neither built nor programmed to bring three men back to earth. Computer readjustments, navigational problems, lack of heat in space, fear of incineration on re-entry, condensation that made the flight “a little like trying to drive a toaster through a car wash”: all these troubles are grippingly dealt with in cinematically unconventional ways. When the guys in this film frantically get out their slide rules, they’re executing a gutsier rescue than the maneuvers of any cape-wearing cartoon superhero.
Thanks largely to Mr. Hanks’ foursquare presence here, the empathy factor for “Apollo 13″ is through the roof. This actor’s way of amplifying the ordinary side of an extraordinary character remains supremely fine-tuned. Playing the tough, commanding Jim Lovell is a substantial stretch for Mr. Hanks, but as usual his seeming ingenuousness overshadows all else about the role. There’s not a false move to anything he does on screen. Once again, he gives a performance that looks utterly natural and is, in fact, subtly new.
The other principal performances are equally staunch, giving vivid, likable impressions of characters whose rough edges have been only slightly smoothed. (The fact that Gene Kranz liked to start his day listening to John Philip Sousa marches, as reported in Andrew Chaikin’s lucid Apollo overview, “A Man on the Moon,” is the kind of thing not dealt with by Mr. Harris’s tight, steely performance.)
Also notable about “Apollo 13″: James Horner’s rousing music, convincing rocket scenes that don’t come from NASA and an authentic glimpse of the role of television reporting during the Apollo crisis. The news media can be faulted for some of the behavior seen here, but Mr. Howard doesn’t waste time taking those potshots. Truly, “Apollo 13″ has better things to do.