Postmodern patriotism: Howard’s “Apollo 13” as history and mythology.

This blog is part of the Remembering James Horner Blogathon hosted by Film Music Central. Thanks for the opportunity to participate!

It seems hard to believe that Apollo 13, Ron Howard’s tense drama about the unlucky 1970 moon mission, came out almost a generation ago. I remember sitting in the theater on a sweltering Fourth of July weekend afternoon, watching images that were (for the time) incredibly new and ground-breaking, to the strains of composer James Horner’s stirring score. Almost as much time has passed since the release of Apollo 13 as elapsed between the real event, which occurred in April 1970, and the making of the film in 1995. The degree to which the film remains as exciting and enjoyable as it did in 1995 is a testament to the timeless chords it strikes, at least among Americans.

Apollo 13 is a true story, and sticks remarkably close to historical events. Veteran astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) and his crew Fred Haise (the late Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) are slated for a second-string mission to the moon several flights after Neil Armstrong’s historic first landing in 1969, but a medical issue moves up the Apollo 13 crew to the front of the line, and at the last minute rookie pilot Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) replaces Mattingly. When they launch in April 1970 all seems well at first, until a mysterious explosion in an oxygen tank rapidly turns the “routine” mission into a grueling and desperate struggle for survival. The mission director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) and the ground crew must improvise an increasingly threadbare chain of work-arounds and problem-solves to bring the Apollo 13 crew home, while the world watches with baited breath on TV.

Apollo 13 is known as an adventure film, but even before the crisis begins it’s a well put-together movie. This launch sequence demonstrates the artistry and Howard’s tight direction.

As a film, even divorced from the true events it depicts Apollo 13 is a top-notch adventure story. It’s almost a nautical tale worthy of a 19th century novel: three men stranded on a huge empty ocean, struggling against impossible odds to get home. In its narrative structure Apollo 13 borrows from classics like Jaws (three men on the ocean) and the Airport disaster films (mechanical failure in a complex machine is the engine of human drama). Yet it never seems derivative, nor does Howard either sensationalize the events of the real mission or mythologize them and the astronauts who drive the plot. From my understanding of the real history, only one episode in the film is really over-dramatized–that being the supposed doubt that Swigert could successfully dock the space capsule on his first attempt–and that comes early, mainly as an attempt to keep the story’s momentum going through a first act heavy with technical exposition. From the moment the explosion happens, the film’s suspense never lets up for an instant.

Since this is part of the James Horner blogathon, I have to devote some attention to Horner’s score. (James Horner, sadly, died in an airplane crash two years ago today, on June 23, 2015). Apollo 13 lies in about the middle of Horner’s true flowering as a composer, which I mark as really hitting a stylistic stride with Sneakers (1992) and reaching its zenith with Titanic (1997). Horner was known as being self-referential, and indeed Apollo 13’s score sounds like half-Sneakers and half-Titanic, jazzed up with a bit of modern patriotic pizzazz. I especially love the track “Dark Side of the Moon,” which involves haunting vocals, though not words, sung by Annie Lennox. The song plays while Lovell’s wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan), the emotional backbone of the film, can no longer hear her husband over the mission control radio as the crew travels around the moon. This scene brings me to tears every time. Having been separated from loved ones many more times than I like to recall–I grew up in a military family–“Dark Side of the Moon” is a very personal and moving piece of music for me.

I cried (yet again) when replaying this track, part of James Horner’s amazing score for Apollo 13. I can’t describe the emotions this brings forward for me.

The real Apollo 13 happened at a curious time in American history. It was an era of diminished expectations and diminished horizons for American exceptionalism: Vietnam was not yet over, and the country, having gone through the wrenching changes of the 1960s, felt battered and demoralized. The successful rescue of the Apollo 13 mission was a rare bright spot in the almost universal gloom of the early 1970s, but, as the film shows us, it was a very near thing. The film’s release in 1995 was at a similarly transitional moment. The first Persian Gulf War of 1991, a patriotic boondoggle, was near enough in the past, but the terrible shocks to American identity that followed–9/11, the 2003 Iraq War and the Great Recession–were still in the future. Apollo 13 wears its patriotic colors on its sleeve, but Howard is restrained enough not to beat the audience over the head with them. In only a year, a much lesser film, the ridiculous and gaseous Independence Day, would shatter the fragile subtlety of American exceptionalist cinema that arguably still held together, just barely, in the mid-1990s. Apollo 13 is a film about history, but had it been made one or two years later, it might have been more a piece of mythology than anything else. Fortunately that didn’t happen.

Apollo 13 is one of the great films of the 1990s, a triumph for the careers of Ron Howard, James Horner, Kathleen Quinlan and Tom Hanks, and still a highly enjoyable movie. But, like the mission it depicts, with just a few wrong turns–or some more bad luck–it might have turned out to be a major disaster.

The poster for Apollo 13 is presumably copyright (C) 1995 by Universal Pictures. I believe my inclusion of it here is permissible under fair use. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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