Every time I’ve ever watched “Apollo 13,” it was always about one-third into the movie, where Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon have already taken off in their doomed shuttle, or still held high hopes of their mission that would soon be determined a “successful failure.” I never knew there was so much emphasis on the romance between Hanks’ character and his wife, or just how everyone onboard (or offboard, with Gary Sinise’s character), were there more by happenstance than any true career calculation.
Now watching ALL of “Apollo 13” puts the movie into a new dramatic light for me, for better and for worse. I never comprehended how Hanks and Paxton essentially hate Bacon’s character and view him as inept, creating some much needed tension on the vessel. I never realized just how much Ron Howard missed the mark with the overly sappy opening and closing, and I never understood how much he redeemed himself with the brilliant analogy of the astronauts and NASA all having to go back to basics in solving their most advanced problem yet.
“Apollo 13” a thrilling movie for the sake of that one thrill, even though it falters elsewhere. The only two characters who are really developed, not just cookie cutter American heroboys like Tom Hanks, are Swigert and Mattingly, played by Bacon and Gary Sinise. Swigert’s moral arc is fascinating, from goofball playboy to valiant pilot, and Mattingly’s new quest for purpose after being kicked off the crew is heartbreaking yet inspiring. And the frantic energy of the mission control room shows just how masterful Howard is with specific scenes in large arenas.
This is arguably Howard’s most famous film, even more than his Best Picture-winning “A Beautiful Mind.” That’s because “Apollo 13” hits on an emotional level that a lot of movies don’t. It isn’t necessarily more deep or complex, but it targets emotions that we want to feel or traits we want to possess. Watching these brave, heroic and honorable characters, in turn, makes us feel brave, heroic and honorable, or want to be brave, heroic and honorable. Howard know this and focuses on making every scene feel as sentimental as possible, so that when we’re watching “Apollo 13,” it’s like we’re reliving our own heroism, even though it happened to other men thousands of miles away.