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Film Talk: Looking Back – A problem for Houston with Apollo 13

It told the story of how the scariest episode in NASA’s history became nothing less than its finest hour, and introduced a remarkable story of courage and determination to a new generation.

Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon and Tom Hanks in Apollo 13
Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon and Tom Hanks in Apollo 13

Directed by Ron Howard, 1995’s Apollo 13 told the tale of the aborted 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission, during which the lives of three American astronauts were in the balance.

Starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise, the flick dramatizes said aborted mission, and is principally an adaptation of the 1994 book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, by lead astronaut Jim Lovell and journalist Jeffrey Kluger.

The film depicts astronauts Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise aboard Apollo 13 for America’s fifth crewed mission to the Moon, which was intended to be the third to land.

However, while the team are making their journey through space, an on-board explosion deprives their craft of much of its oxygen supply and electrical power, which forces NASA’s flight controllers to abort the Moon landing and turns the mission into a struggle to get the three men home alive.

Ron Howard reportedly went to great lengths to create a technically accurate flick, employing NASA’s assistance in astronaut and flight-controller training for his cast and obtaining permission to film scenes aboard a reduced gravity aircraft for realistic depiction of the weightlessness experienced by the astronauts in space.

With leading man Hanks cast at the height of his powers, expectations for the flick were high. But could Hollywood do justice to such an incredible true tale of heroics both in space and at NASA Mission Control?..

It has been less than 12 months since man first walked on the surface of the Moon, yet as far as the people of America are concerned, Apollo 13 is no big deal, and simply another mission to a rock we’ve visited before. However, this space flight is about to capture their interest for reasons no-one ever hoped, as Mission Control receives the haunting message: “Houston, we have a problem.”

Stranded over 200,000 miles from Earth in a damaged spacecraft, astronauts Jim Lovell (Hanks), Fred Haise (Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Bacon) fight a desperate battle for survival. Meanwhile, at Mission Control, astronaut Ken Mattingly (Sinise), flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) and a phenomenal ground crew race against both the odds and time to bring the three astronauts home.

As the world watches with bated breath, the families of the astronauts, including Lovell’s wife, Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan), can do nothing but hope and pray for their loved ones’ safe return...

Upon its release, Apollo 13 did not disappoint, receiving critical acclaim and eventually being nominated for nine Academy Awards, two of which it won. In total, the flick grossed over $355 million worldwide.

With sensational performances from all involved – particularly from Hanks, Quinlan and Harris – Apollo 13 retains a place in the heart of many film fans, and no matter how many times you’ve seen it, never fails to hit home and grip you with the danger of the situation, just as the actual incident gripped the entire world. A classic of no mistaking, Apollo 13 is worthy of a place in anybody’s top ten.

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