30 Movies in 30 Days: Apollo 13

Had I seen it before: Yes, but it’s been a few years.

What IMDb says: NASA must devise a strategy to return Apollo 13 to Earth safely after the spacecraft undergoes massive internal damage putting the lives of the three astronauts on board in jeopardy.

Requirements fulfilled: No new requirements fulfilled

Why I picked it: I realized this was on Hulu a few days ago whilst looking for something else. While I shied away from it at the time because it is on the longer side, it’s been in the back of my mind ever since. When a friend included it on his list of suggestions to me, I took it as fate and had to make it happen.

What I liked about it: Of all the movies I’ve seen, Apollo 13 is potentially the best example of how investing in exposition early on can give us greater payoff later. The first time I watched this movie, I knew relatively little about screenwriting, and I didn’t have my little habit of checking times to see when major story beats are happening. It turns out that Lovell and his crew don’t actually launch into space until just after the 30 minute mark. After that, we still get a solid 20 minutes of them adjusting to life in space and enjoying it before the oxygen tank explosion that sets the rest of the story in motion.

Think about that. The primary conflict of this movie is not introduced until 50 minutes in. That is completely and utterly fascinating to me. But make no mistake, this does not mean those first 50 minutes are boring. There’s still enough relatively small conflicts to cause drama and all of this serves to keep the movie interesting as well as show us how our main characters will handle drama later:

  • We watch the crew practice re-entry in the flight simulator. We get a sense for just how difficult it is to get this right, even on a mission that goes according to plan. We understand how doing it wrong means death. All of this helps set up re-entry as the major climax of the movie, and keeps it in the back of our minds as we watch the crew solve other problems in space.
  • All the time that we watch Lovell on the ground longingly looking up at the moon means we can really feel his pain when he has to utter those words “We just lost the moon” around 57 minutes in. That time he spends telling his wife about Mount Marilyn (a mountain on the moon he named after her) pays off later when he has to fly right by the moon knowing his dream of walking on it is gone.
  • Ken Mattingly is bumped from the crew for fear that he will catch measles. This fundamentally shifts the dynamic that our crew has as they try to get through the crisis that comes up later.
  • We learn how society considered Apollo 13 “a routine mission” and took it for granted that these astronauts would return safely. Later in the movie when the world waits with bated breath to see if they made it back safely.

“Get to the point” and “don’t waste too much time on set up scenes” are sometimes notes given to screenwriters, but I think Apollo 13 is evidence that if you can make your set up scenes engaging enough, they don’t feel like set-up scenes. I would also argue that such scenes are imperative when you’re doing a based-on-real-life story. They are what separates a narrative feature from a newscast.

And it’s not like the movie doesn’t keep us engaged after those first fifty minutes either. It’s paced wonderfully, breaking that overarching crisis of “How do we get back to Earth alive?” into plenty of smaller crises. How do we make sure the astronauts don’t get carbon dioxide poisoning? How do we find the necessary power supply to help us with re-entry? How do we course correct to make sure we’re hitting the atmosphere at the proper angle for re-entry? There’s a great rhythm of building up tension and then releasing it.

The movie also is full of sly dialog that helps convey the scientific context we need to understand what’s happening. The re-entry simulations I mentioned above are one example but there’s plenty more. For example, when the astronauts are doing their broadcast to earth, they get a chance to tell the audience all about their spacecraft. We learn that the LEM is only designed for flight in space, and is essentially made out of tin foil. Shortly after the explosion that starts spewing oxygen into space, we cut back to Earth. We see a newscast explaining the events, and we see Mrs. Lovell explain what happened to their child. Not only does this add more emotional depth to the events on the spacecraft, it also takes all that technical dialog between the astronauts and ground control and puts it in laypersons’ terms. Doing it this way feels far more natural than making all the rocket scientists and engineers over-explain stuff when they’re talking amongst themselves.

I also forgot how wonderful Ed Harris is Gene Kranz. What I love about Kranz is that he is 100% in control of every scene he is in, yet he doesn’t micromanage either. When his team gives him new information, he trusts them.He is demanding, and is constantly reminding the audience of just how high the stakes are, and how he doesn’t care how much work it takes to succeed. Failure is not an option.

What I didn’t like about it: This is possibly the only time in my life that I have ever envied the engineers in my life. Exponentially more earning power than artsy creative types? Pssh, who needs that. But those bastards can understand the technical jargon of Apollo 13. 

Will I watch it again: Yes. I probably will. It’s just too good not to.


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