07 September 2011

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: THE APOLLO PROGRAM

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: it would appear, from the evidence, that there are two ways you can treat the Apollo moon missions in cinema - with utter contempt, as in Transformers: Dark of the Moon or this week's Apollo 18, or with worshipful respect and adoration and patriotic tubthumping. I shall today take a look at the latter sort, revisiting a summer movie of yore that meant an awful lot to a certain adolescent who'd later become something of a film blogger.

The Space Age dominated American consciousness for a decade or more, creating a new mode of popular culture more or less out of whole cloth, and creating mythology out of living, breathing humans for the last time before Watergate and Vietnam killed all the innocence and naïveté that made such hero-worship possible.* It is the high water mark of the last Golden Age of American nostalgia, and given that, it's always surprised me a bit that there are so very few non-documentary movies about the Space Race, and the history of NASA through the end of the Apollo Program. By my count, I get two, 1983's The Right Stuff and 1995's Apollo 13, and it just so happens that a kindly fate has ensured that both of them are pretty tremendous movies - the first unambiguously great, the second so deliriously close to great that I'm tempted just to sweep it in, particular given how far better it is than anything else its director has ever touched.

(There's also the quite fine 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon that basically owes its existence to Apollo 13, and if we really want to squint, the 2000 Australian comedy The Dish. Adding up to fewer historical US space program movies than there are Final Destinations.)

Our current subject is Apollo 13, which was for a brief span in the mid-'90s possibly my favorite movie ever, and certainly the VHS tape that I watched the most in 1996. That's the full disclosure part of the review, and I'd be lying if I said that I was able to get over every last hurdle of nostalgia: there are flaws in the movie, without a doubt, and yet I find myself awfully willing to ignore them, or worse yet, excuse them. But let us press on.

On 20 July, 1969, the Lunar Module Eagle touched down on the surface of Earth's moon, whereupon Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to set foot on another celestial body. A mere eight months later, the third trip to the moon launched, Apollo 13, comprising the Command Module Odyssey and the Lunar Module Aquarius, manned by Commander Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), CM Pilot Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and LM Pilot Fred Haise (Bill Paxton). On the third day of the mission, during routine maintenance, one of the vessel's oxygen tanks exploded, crippling the ship and forcing a mission abort. This in turn led to a scramble onboard and at NASA Mission Control to manage the crisis and bring the astronauts back to Earth safely.

That nice little history book précis papers over a whole lot of effort by a whole lot of people to get Apollo 13 back home in once piece, with all the attendant human drama along the way. That human drama is, naturally enough, the focus of the movie, though one of the things that has always impressed me about Apollo 13 is that, despite the presence of a marquee star like Tom Hanks, who was at the very height of his box office powers in 1995 (and whose performance here is maybe his best of the 1990s), the filmmakers never make the movie "about" Jim Lovell, even though the primary source for William Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert's screenplay was Lovell's memoir Lost Moon. It's not a film of individual heroism, but the collective effort of a whole lot of characters, some of whom we never even come to know by name - a nice corrective to the general cultural awareness of the moon missions being limited to the astronauts involved, and even then only the glamorous ones (quickly, who served alongside Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11?), ignoring the thousands of scientists, technicians, and craftsmen who made the rockets go. One suspects that this is partially the influence of Reinert, whose single film credit to this point was the definitive Apollo Program documentary For All Mankind; at any rate, I am pleased that there exists a blockbuster popcorn movie that introduced Joe and Jane Filmgoer to Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), even managing to make him look every bit as much a hero as the three astronauts - partially it is true, by fudging history. For that matter, Apollo 13 is obliged to fudge history in a lot of extremely tiny ways: Kranz is the biggest, being a composite of multiple figures (and his slogan-ready ejaculation "Failure is not an option!" a bit of Hollywood braggadocio), but certain moments are pushed together, details of plot streamlined, and so on and so forth: nothing tremendously out of place, but the overall effect is to make the whole thing a bit more exciting and a bit more rousing.

Are these sins? I don't quite know. It's very nice to have summer movies that are thrilling & rousing, after all. Nonetheless, something about Apollo 13 feels a bit packaged, warm humanism and unproblematic patriotism presented in a manner that somehow feels like historical tinkering went on, even though, for a fact-based Hollywood picture, very little did (in point of fact, Apollo 13 generally hews closer to reality than did The Right Stuff, a film that never feels quite as hectoring). Nostalgia can be genuine, and nostalgia can be a marketing tool, and Apollo 13 is always crowded up next to the line between the two, though always on the right side.

And this, I think, is due to director Ron Howard, one of the most unfortunate souls in Hollywood, though I'm sure his Oscar and his tens of millions of dollars would argue otherwise. Howard's great problem as a filmmaker is that he's too good at making movies that are slick and hollow and commercial, which is harmless when he's cranking out action-adventure pablum like Ransom or The Da Vinci Code, except that he can't turn it off, and when he gets to making a movie that, to all appearances, he believes in - Cinderella Man or Backdraft or the infamous A Beautiful Mind - his stabs at pathos and emotional resonance typically feel horribly insincere, regardless of their sincerity. His movies are straightforward, episodic, and far too concerned with making us feel good all over; in fact, he recalls Spielberg at his worst, except Howard is in that place all the damn time. Apollo 13 is, I should think, unquestionably his best film, and partially it's because the content inoculates itself against Howard's arch-commercial instinct: if there is one subject that makes it okay to feel old-fashioned patriotism and pride in humanity and a warm sense that things never get so bad that they can't get better, it is surely the US space program. Still, the film's single most pervasive problem, which is its tendency to break down into episodes (now it's the "energy loss" part of the film, and now it's the "CO filter" part of the film, and now it's the "entry angle" part of the film), is vintage Howard.

Anyway, though the thing might ultimately be too forgiving and rewarding for the audience, it has the decency to be those things in the best possible way. The overt Americana of James Horner's score fits the movie well while failing, for once, to sound like every other Horner score ever (instead, it sounds like a decent riff on John Williams's militaristic scores); and the movie is a staggering technical achievement, utilising CGI that was the absolute bleeding edge in 1995 and still looks far better today than the effects work in movies ten years younger, and also famously involving a whole lot of photography done in zero gravity conditions. Dean Cundey, one of the great under-appreciated cinematographers of the last 30 years, filmed the inside of the capsule and Lunar Module, cramped spaces barely big enough for three humans, with some of the most innovative angles imaginable, though since those angles are trying to call the smallest amount of attention to themselves, the thing looks completely normal & thus "uninteresting" despite the amount of effort it must have taken to make things look normal.

The movie is comfort food, in short, but there are good and bad ways of making comfort food. This is one of the best - simple without being insulting, nostalgic without being reductive. It is not the masterpiece I thought it was when I was 14, but it's among the most resilient of '90s blockbusters and a damn sight more sincere and grown-up than the sort of films that have replaced it.

7 comments:

Rebecca said...

I was going to answer who the CM pilot was on Apollo 11, but by the time I got to the end, it wasn't "quickly" anymore :-)

Would you like to count October Sky in your space history movie list?

Also, while I would be among the space geeks that would want more space history movies, honestly, what is left to do? Maybe a history of cosmonauts (since they beat the US to every major milestone in the Space Race, until, if I remember right, orbiting the moon), but Apollo 13 was the big drama that was drawn out over several days so that it could actually be a movie. Sure there were other moments of drama/disaster in all of NASA's programs (Mercury 4, Gemini 8, Apollo 1, a couple famous shuttles, etc.), but would they really be suited to a feature-length film? I guess that's a silly statement in a year that is bringing us a film based on Battleship, but I know you know what I mean. Is it time to remake The Right Stuff? Do we want that, even to make it more historically accurate? Or is it time to start doing the individual astronaut biopics?

Chris said...

I was sad when I learned that you weren't using Shark Night 3D to give us a review of Jaws, but you more than made up for it with this review. Thanks, Tim!

I think the episodic nature that you mentioned actually suites this film to a certain degree. Let's face it, there are a lot of technical aspects to the mission that Howard thankfully didn't shy away from depicting, and all of the space jargon and the astronauts constantly moving back and forth between the modules and flipping switches can make it tough to follow the action. Taking on each problem one at a time and following them to resolution I think makes the film easier to digest for the less scientifically oriented.

A little anecdote: when the movie first came out, my cousin was convinced that the floating effect was created by stuffing the actors' spacesuits with helium bags! (We were 10)

Tim said...

Rebecca- October Sky is right on the edge for me. It's more of a prequel to a NASA movie than an actual NASA movie, though given the slim pickings, I guess it's fair to count it.

I get the point you're making about the lack of compelling narratives in the space program - I'm not even saying I want more of them, for that reason - but if From the Earth to the Moon proves anything, it's that there are ways to make these stories interesting. A Right Stuff style ensemble movie about the development and execution of Apollo 11 would do well for itself, I have to imagine.

Also, you have made me sad by reminding me of Battleship.

Chris- That is a fantastic point about using the episodic plot in the film's favor. It's certainly effective here in a way that it is absolutely not in e.g. Ransom. Also, I admire your cousin's sense of invention.

Rebecca said...

I am sad too, but it was the first example that came to mind of extending something that takes 5 minutes into a feature. I am sorry.

And yes, I love From the Earth to the Moon. It is very well done. But it covers so much ground (very well), that it doesn't leave much for anyone else to do. I guess there are probably options out there - I was thoroughly impressed with how that series handled Apollo 13 without remaking Apollo 13. And yeah, I see how an ensemble Apollo 11 film could get made, but I guess it's one of the reasons I'm not a screenwriter that I don't see how something like that hasn't already been done better (otherwise known as From the Earth to the Moon episodes 1-6 & 11).

Don Mancini said...

In APOLLO 13 -- and in RANSOM, FROST/NIXON, THE PAPER, ED TV, and probably one or two that I'm forgetting -- Howard expertly executes one of his favorite tropes: the media's ability to connect and unify all the various characters (and by implication, all of us) into one big, thrillingly egalitarian mass. It's an unsurprisingly romantic (or naive?) perspective, coming from someone who grew up on television. And it may be the closest thing to a directorial signature that he has. All of these films feature exciting, well-edited sequences of disparate characters huddled around TV sets (or poring over newspapers), simultaneously receiving the same information, with their carefully differentiated responses to the event in question serving to propel conflict and drama. I think it's a legitimately interesting technique. I also think THE PAPER, RANSOM, and FROST/NIXON are all terrific, underrated films.

Hannah said...

No mention of In the Shadow of the Moon? I was a big space geek like you (still am, a bit) and was surprised you didn't mention it as part of film history about NASA.

It's about the Apollo missions (nothing Mercury or Gemini, sadly, I know so little about them).

Tim said...

Seen it, loved it, reviewed it. I did not mention it here mostly because it came out 12 years later, and I try my best not to "read forward" in my reviews over older films, unless it seems to cast a light on something vital. And in my brief overview, I was only looking at dramatic films, not documentaries.