Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Trip to the Moon on Gossamer Wings

"If they could get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy could land it."

Mrs. Lovell (Jean Speegle Howard)

The day that I saw "Apollo 13" (which premiered on this day in 1995) at a movie theater is crystal clear in my memory. Not much else from that time is vivid in my memory — except for the fact that my mother died in a flash flood two months earlier. I spent that summer with my father. He had been injured in the flood and needed someone's assistance every day.

That summer is a blur to me now. I guess it was the routine nature of most days. I didn't take Dad to physical therapy every day, but I took him often enough that it took on a routine quality. Cooking his meals were daily events for me. I did the laundry and the housework — not every day but most days. Cutting the grass was once a week. A very routine quality.

But I remember the day I saw Ron Howard's "Apollo 13." Some friends of my parents called us up and asked if we wanted to go see it. We jumped at the offer.

There are always a few movie directors whose work I want to see — regardless of the topic. Ron Howard is one of them. And there are a handful of actors whose work I always want to see — regardless of the topic. Tom Hanks is one of them. A movie directed by Howard and starring Hanks was made to order.

I wasn't much on the space theme when I was a child — and I was a child during the space race. I got caught up in it when most people did, like when Apollo 11 went to the moon, but I really didn't pay much attention to it a lot of the time. I don't know why. It seemed to be a pretty big thing with most of the kids I knew.

But I do remember Apollo 13 and how the world seemed to hold its breath during the effort to bring that crippled spacecraft back to earth.

Ron Howard reminds me of Steven Spielberg in so many ways. They both love technology that gives them new options for special effects, and they love using that technology to get the kind of response from their audiences that they desire. Camera angles are important, but those computer–enhanced special effects are hard to beat — and almost impossible to resist if you're making a movie about America's space program.

Even the actual footage of blastoffs couldn't provide the kind of angles viewers could see in "Apollo 13." After watching that movie, I, for one, had a much greater appreciation for the risks those astronauts took, strapping themselves into the nose of a rocket that went hurtling into the sky at hundreds of miles an hour and out into the unknown realm of space.

There were no guarantees of anyone's safety — yet the only astronaut fatalities in the first 25 years or so of NASA space travel were the three fire–related deaths on the ground in 1967.

That event provided one of the best moments in the movie, in my opinion. Hanks' character got moved up from backup crew to primary crew when the assignments were changed for medical reasons, and Apollo 13 was scheduled to lift off slightly more than three years after those other astronauts died in the fire.

Hanks' son in the movie — Jim Lovell's real son was only about 4 when Apollo 13 made its aborted moon flight — expressed his concerns about his father going into space (even though Lovell had been on a Gemini mission the year before the boy was born), and Hanks tried to explain to him about the lessons that had been learned from that fire and the improvements that had been made to spaceships because of it.

Hanks explained to his son that a problem during the fire had been the hatch — the "door," he told his son. The astronauts were unable to open it when the fire broke out. NASA, he explained, had fixed that problem. "It's not a problem anymore," he assured his son.

Later in the movie, when the astronaut's wife (Kathleen Quinlan) told the boy that "something broke on your daddy's spaceship," the boy asked in a hushed tone, "Was it the door?"

Most of the time, Hollywood can't resist adding drama to a story that really doesn't need it, and "Apollo 13" didn't need it.

"Ron Howard's film of this mission is directed with a single–mindedness and attention to detail that makes it riveting," film critic Roger Ebert wrote. "He doesn't make the mistake of adding cornball little subplots to popularize the material; he knows he has a great story, and he tells it in a docudrama that feels like it was filmed on location in outer space."

As astonishing as the re–creation of the event in space was, it was hard pressed at times to match the scenes from earth. That is one of the things I remember from that time — how the newscasts focused on the astronauts' families and how they were coping with the situation. At the time, I felt torn between wanting to know everything I could possibly know — and wishing people would respect the families' privacy.

The nice thing about a movie, though, is that somewhere deep down you realize that the families' privacy really isn't being invaded, that these are actors. But the dramatization of Hanks' on–screen family watching the news coverage of Apollo 13's attempt to re–enter earth's atmosphere was as intense as if the viewer was watching the real thing.

I'll grant you, it's hard to draw a distinction sometimes.

Howard's movie would have been incomplete if it focused only on what the astronauts — Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton — were facing. Much of the drama occurred on the ground — and not just on the home front. NASA's technicians, including Gary Sinise (whose character would have been on board if not for apparently needless worries that he might be sick with the German measles during the flight), performed heroically under pressure to come up with an ingenious device made from things on board the ship that would resolve problems with a damaged oxygen tank.

Television news did report that at the time, but my memory is that, when the astronauts were safely back on earth, the spotlight fell entirely on them. That probably suited the ground crew just fine. It was, after all, a team effort.

Ed Harris played Gene Kranz, the captain of the team. In the movie, he was credited with saying, "Failure is not an option," although I have heard that Kranz did not actually say it, that it was created by screen writers.

That doesn't take anything away from what NASA achieved 45 years ago, and it took nothing from Ebert's admiration.

"The space program was a really extraordinary thing, something to be proud of," he wrote, "and those who went into space were not just 'heroes,' which is a cliché, but brave and resourceful."