The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?
Hanks, who was voted America’s most trusted person by Readers Digest readers in 2013 (any contender being inherently suspect) and who had, or would go on to create, underpinning footnotes to the AIDS crisis (Philadelphia), the Moon landings (Forrest Gump), Afghanistan (Charlie Wilson’s War), 9/11 (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), WWII (Saving Private Ryan, Greyhound, backing up an idealised, inherently noble and righteous war), immigration (The Terminal), the Vatican/religious conspiracy (The Da Vinci Code(s)), dystopian projections of reincarnation and/or transgenderism (Cloud Atlas), Disney as a nice guy (Saving Mr. Banks), the Cold War as a real beef (Bridge of Spies), salutary Saudi relations (A Hologram for the King), all-things AI and transhumanist (The Circle, Finch), media manipulation (The Post, News of the World, Sully), and wrecking Mr Rogers’ rep (A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood). Kevin Costner looked more like Lovell, but Tom, the all-American, flag-waving figurehead for unquestioning, official, sincere history just loved his space.
Apollo 13 was based on Lost Moon by Jim Lovell – well, let’s face it, by co-author Jeffrey Kluger – and he was the only one of the trio of astronauts involved; Jack Swigert had passed away a decade before, and Fred Haise wasn’t interested (one always wonders when an astronaut shuns publicity). The movie arrived at a point of cinema’s reinvigorated interest in recent (boomer) history, mostly thanks to Stone’s JFK. Its most overt impact on Apollo 13 is the newsreel introduction and James Horner’s John Williams-lite, elegiac, anthemic fanfare for times past and greater than now. You know, when men were more honest and sincerer and somehow just plain better than they are today. And absolutely would not get involved in hoodwinking the entire world.
The narration of the trustworthy Walter Cronkite tells us how “In only seven years, America has risen to the challenge of what, inspired by the late President, he called ‘The most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked’”, so emphasising the absurd obstacles against achieving the Moon shot, after trailing the Soviets for years. Which included the “sudden and horrible fire on the launchpad that killed American astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee…” And how there were serious doubts America would beat the Soviets to the Moon (lest you doubt nominally combative superpowers colluding in such an area, look no further than the plandemic… and beyond). But glory be: “a mere eighteen months after the tragedy of Apollo 1, the entire world watched in awe…” (Philip Kaufman’s altogether superior The Right Stuff is, ironically, a testament to how the leap from disaster after disaster to sudden success was, well, unbelievable).
As noted, this approach – of reinforcing the “dramatisation” (of a dramatisation), with “real” source footage – could be found in the prior films of both Kaufman and Stone, and it’s an unsurprising choice, given that Little Ronnie Howard never had an original thought in his little directorial mind. The most vanilla of directors, his competency is only matched by his complete lack of personality. He makes your average journeyman look like an auteur, and Apollo 13 is duly studied and functional. It is also, so it has been alleged, a movie he had to complete his 33rd degree to make (never, ever mistake Little Ronnie for a nice guy; he’s about as cuddly as Spielberg).
One might argue such anodyne “diligence” as Howard’s adds to Apollo 13’s air of authenticity. How could anything be other than the unvarnished when Hanks and Howard are compering it? To that end, the MacGyver-ish approach of dealing with the knowhow needed to improvise a safe journey home could only be bona fide; you just couldn’t make it up (this “stranger than fiction” approach is cited for scenes like Kathleen Quinlan’s Marilyn Lovell losing her wedding ring in the shower)! We saw something very similar more recently with Matt Damon’s impossibly can-do astronaut in The Martian, to similar enthusiastic audience response. So evidently, if you want to reinforce your presentation of a “reality”, your best bet is to foreground the set of problems you have conceived for it.
To this end, Howard has selected a dedicated cast in service of the whole. Gary Sinise reunites with Hanks following Forrest Gump. Kevin Bacon was recently found propositioning Costner in JFK. Bill Paxton was a seasoned ensemble player. And Ed Harris was a former John Glen. Other notable ones include Quinlan, Xander Berkeley, Bret Cullen, Ray McKinnon and Clint Howard (of course, and getting a very arty reflected glasses shot courtesy of DP Dean Cundey). Apollo 13 did what it needed to do, post- the super-exploding-shuttle ’80s (and concomitant Space Camp): to re-impress upon us all the once-majestic journey of man to the stars. Or did it?
Because Apollo 13 also manages to double down on the very elements that cast doubt on both the programme and its durability. Many of the pockets of dialogue may be seen as leading to such an assessment, if one is so inclined, and some of the interludes are quite bizarre. “From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the Moon” announces Lovell of the enforced paradigm shift: “It’s not a miracle. We just decided to go”. For which, one might read: “It happened, because we said it happened”. Cameoing Roger Corman, titan of budget schlock, appears to cast doubt on space activities and “why we’re continuing to fund this programme now that we’ve beaten the Russians to the Moon”.
There is recurring emphasis on the fire that took Gus Grissom, an individual frequently debated as a dissenter to the programme’s lies and subterfuge and therefore its victim, despite his masonic credentials. “Dad, did you know the astronauts in the fire?” asks Jim’s son, understandably concerned about dad’s prospects. Could that happen again? “Uh, a lot of things went wrong…” replies Jim uncertainly, before striking out in detailing them all (well, you wouldn’t go on, would you, if it wasn’t an accident?) Jim’s objection to writing off Apollo is the example of Columbus (whose validity should be every bit as questionable as the Moon landings): “Imagine if no one returned in his footsteps”. To which one must wonder (if we take both at face value): “Would that be such a bad thing?”
If we pick up on Grissom’s example, the danger is not in going to the Moon or going into space, but in not backing the official story, or being disgruntled or disapproving. And yet, Apollo 13 yields clues of dissent, but only so many. Ken Mattingly (Sinise) jokes about the significance of the mission number (“Well, I had a black cat, uh, walk over a broken mirror under the lunar module ladder”), but how likely is it that the mission and that of Mattingly’s replacement Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) should be the thirteen (Swigert was the thirteenth Apollo team member). It’s almost as if it was scripted that way.
We’re thrown “facts” as to the dangers involved, how there’s “400 degrees between sunlight and shadow” (think about that). They’re at an “altitude of 200,000 miles from the face of the Earth”. How “the skin of the LEM in some places is only as thick as a couple of layers of tin foil”; “And that’s all that protects us from the vacuum of space”. Crazy, right? Even more so that “We can get away with this because the LEM is designed for flight only in outer space”???!! Even Lovell’s final testament “I watched other men walk on the Moon and return safely, all from the confines of Mission Control and our house in Houston” wafts the whiff of fakery, as does the invocation to further funding: “I look up at the Moon and wonder, ‘When will we be going back and who will that be?’”
Doubtless, the measles element was part of the NASA script, in order to introduce the second “thirteen” for anyone not paying attention. But disease paradigms are further emphasised with the quarantine conditions: “We don’t want daddy to get any of our germs and be sick in outer space, right?” (This pre-flight isolation was only introduced with the shuttle missions, when it was becoming clearer just how horrifyingly dangerous germs are.) The overriding purpose of the Apollo 13 drama is also foregrounded, such that it is a fait accompli. At the opening, even though “There’s nothing routine about flying to the Moon” we learn “All the networks dumped us” and “They said we made going to the Moon about as exciting as taking a trip to Pittsburgh”. Later, with the nation on tenterhooks, Marilyn asks “I thought they didn’t care about this mission?”. Berkley’s Henry Hurt replies there’s “more drama now” and “The whole world is caught up in it” (so it becomes believable).
Apollo 13 also has a recursive quality, in its emphasis on the vital importance of the simulations Mattingly goes through in order to help devise a solution to the problem of getting the men back. Dark Moon by Mary Bennett and David S Perry takes the view that Apollo 13 was a “real-time exercise carried out in its entirety right under our noses in low Earth orbit” (ie: the authors nevertheless buy into globe Earth). Their grounds for this are that blue can be seen in one window in the footage, so they must be a few hundred miles up. As for widespread complicity, “it is highly likely that the fact that this mission was taking place entirely in LEO was totally unknown to the majority of NASA personnel at Houston” (Bennett and Perry also note that, in pursuit of the planned mishap, landing site Fra Mauro was unlit at the time of scheduled landing, which simply would not have worked for TV. Additionally, they quote a source that “The alleged explosion would have blown the CSM/LM combo to smithereens”).
The craft itself appears to add weight to theories of fictionalisation. The name The Odyssey invokes the then-recent 2001, while Aquarius grasps at the similarly zeitgeist-y Hair, so appropriating and supplanting cultural milestones (the wonder of the possible they presented would duly sink into the mire of the subsequent decade’s rude awakening). Dark Moon notes HAL’s “Sorry to interrupt the festivities, but we have a problem” prior to things going awry on the Discovery (also planned). And that the Apollo 13 crew actually played Also Sprach Zarathustra on the broadcast (rather than the movie’s Spirit in the Sky); “Were they afraid of the parallels between 2001 and this film in an age when more and more people are openly questioning the authenticity of the Apollo record?”
A copy of the mission report, sent to Arthur C Clarke, was inscribed “Just as you always said it would be, Arthur” on the cover (by NASA administrator Thomas Paine). For the authors, Clarke’s comment regarding the mission events – “I still get a very strange feeling… as if I share a certain responsibility” – is an admission of complicity. And maybe so. Just as maybe Kubrick did shoot Apollos 11, 12 and 13 (giving him several sequels on his filmography). The combination of name, music and line are evidence enough, in their view, as “a successful failure was an integral part of the scripted pilot, a guarantee to revive media interest in NASA’s attempts to get to the Moon and back”.
To what end? The still “mysteriously” non-actualised Project Horizon Moon and Mars outposts, such that Apollo 13 suggested an excuse to curtail Apollo missions (which it did), demonstrate NASA’s abilities (well, yes), and hopefully assure funding for next stage of Horizon (perhaps not so much).
As for the movie, I’ve always been dubious about the claims of filming in the vomit comet, given the minimal shootable footage available (23 seconds of weightlessness? Of course, it’s 23 seconds). You could throw in a couple of brief shots or cutaways – or upchuck-aways –and make the argument, I guess, but no way was anything substantial done that way. Regardless, any boast of authentic-looking imagery is thrown into relief by some really quite shonky CGI (and on renderings such as rockets too, much more easily achievable in theory than your average dinosaur).
There are also a couple of dream sequences that may be purposely fake looking – to contrast with the bits that are “real” – but you have to wonder. Quinlan has a nightmare about her hubby being sucked into space (said to be a result of seeing Marooned on TV). Elsewhere, Hanks vision of stepping out onto the surface of the Moon is pretty funny, and hilariously bogus. That’s why you need a poor-quality black-and-white TV: to hide the studio joins.
There’s another conspiratorial area of note with Apollo 13, but not one relating the mission itself. This is one cited by frequenters of the film, noting how its key line has changed from “Houston we have a problem” to “Houston, we’ve had a problem” and then “flip-flopped” back again (the thread of conversation goes into the original content of the mission tapes, but there’s no reason those tapes couldn’t have been “Mandela Effected” too, if the movie was, rather like George Lucas and Anthony Daniels confirming C-3PO always had a silver leg). If you don’t credit reality as in any way permeable, such a notion will, of course, meet with derision; the Mandela Effect may after all, be about manipulated perception, rather than reality itself. Much like the Apollo programme.
Apollo 13 was Best Picture nominated in a generally weak year, and it was the biggest success out of the final five (although, both winner Braveheart and Babe did strong business, and Sense and Sensibility’s performance was nothing to be sneezed at). Was Apollo 13 any more or less accurate than Braveheart? More pertinent would be whether it was any more or less accurate than Babe. Pigs might fly, but The Odyssey orbiter never did.
First published by Now in Full Color on 30/03/22.