Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris Kathleen Quinlan
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Do you remember the 1990s? Mark does. On Fridays, he flashes back to the golden decade of our childhood. From family-friendly films to blockbusters we shouldn’t have been watching, get ready for a monthly dose of nostalgia, as we put down our VHS tapes and find out whether the 90s on Netflix are still Live & Kicking.
One of the BBFC’s more infamous classification details is the PG certificate for 1995’s Apollo 13. Most of us would describe the true story of the three astronauts trying to steer a malfunctioning lunar module back to Earth in slightly stronger terms than “mild peril”, but the understatement sort of suits Ron Howard’s gripping drama.
When Neil Armstrong first walks on the moon in 1969, astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) still dreams of following in his footsteps. But having already beaten the Russians to the coldest contested territory in the Cold War, America is less interested in funding further manned lunar missions, meaning the Apollo programme’s days are numbered.
That’s why Lovell jumps at the chance to leave earlier than planned on the next flight, along with crewmembers Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise). However, starting with the last-minute swapping of Mattingly for young buck Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), the mission doesn’t go as planned. In fact, once out in space, a minor fault leaves Lovell and his crew stranded in a situation where rescue is impossible, with Mission Control scrambling to try and get everyone back home safe.
For those of us who watched this shortly after it came out, probably on home video or terrestrial TV, Apollo 13 was probably one of the first grown-up films we saw. It’s about space, it’s got the guy from Big and Turner and Hooch in it, and it’s got a PG certificate, so it must be suitable for kids, right?
While there’s nothing in it that’s explicitly unfriendly for families, this is a little heavy-going for children, in between the painstaking technical accuracy of the drama and the, e, “mild peril”. Howard has a bit of a reputation for being a capable but dispassionate director, which hasn’t been helped by recent outings such as Solo or his dreadful Dan Brown adaptations, but it’s the emotional stakes that allow this to escape the surly bonds of exposition and soar to memorable heights.
Before and during lift-off, Howard takes care to establish the astronauts’ characters individually, before launching them into a situation where everyone, on and off Earth, has to work together in order to avert catastrophe. There are early moments of weakness, insecurity, or even tenderness that resonate throughout the ensuing crisis, making it easy to invest in and root for them.
Rather neatly, the first half is about being desperate to get to the moon and the second half is about being desperate to get home. Hanks and Sinise are both great, playing characters whose ambitions are thwarted at different stages of the fateful mission, but have to quickly get over it in order to focus on the far more important return trip.
But in keeping with the team effort being portrayed, it’s an ensemble piece. Bacon and Paxton’s supporting performances are admirable too, but it’s Ed Harris’ terrific turn as flight director Gene Kranz that epitomises both the can-do stoicism and powerful emotion that fuels the film throughout its running time. If there’s a standout among the excellent cast, it’s him.
Granted, with all these detailed portraits of masculinity, Quinlan feels somewhat relegated to the role of the wife who doesn’t know if her husband can do the historic thing or not. Nevertheless, the Oscar-winning editing serves to put everyone’s story in context as the drama wears on, with the added bonus of ramping up the suspense as we cut from living rooms to control rooms watching the crisis unfold.
To put it in Armstrong’s words, Apollo 13 is about small steps rather than giant leaps. With its seamless special effects and unfussy performances, it’s not an especially showy film, but the emotional and historical subtext makes this just as enthralling and evocative as more modern space movies like The Martian or First Man. Understated though it may seem, Howard’s film still packs a wallop.
Next time on The 90s On Netflix…
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Apollo 13 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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