RETRO ROCKET

The extent to which real life has surpassed the science fiction that many of us read as kids can be quite disorienting. Director Ron Howard's new film Apollo 13 is an epic true-life space odyssey, and it's also a period piece. The central character, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), is one of the few humans who has ever used his thumb to block his view of the Earth, yet his dialogue contains a nostalgic laugh line in which he wows a tour group at NASA with the technical marvel of "a computer that can fit in a single room." The film is otherworldly, yet it's quaint.

This odd mingling of tones is somehow just right for Howard, who last year cleverly modernized the old fast-talking newspaper genre with The Paper, easily the best film in his mostly abysmal directorial canon--until now. Apollo 13 is the story of an S O S, and as such it isn't really any deeper or more profound than Rescue 911. But, like the simple, equalizing drama of that show, it's irresistible. On its own wide-eyed terms, it's just about perfect.

Apollo 13 is not the first nostalgic look at the space program. Philip Kaufman's fine, underrated film adaptation of Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff chronicled the early days of the Mercury program, but, following Wolfe, did so with an air of affectionate satire. Howard's film, re-creating the aptly numbered moonshot of 1970 which ran into technical difficulties and barely made it back to terra firma, drops the irony; this could have been an official NASA production. Howard gets no closer to social commentary than to join in the characters' huffiness about the public's blasā attitude toward moonwalks, just a year after the first one had happened.

Like many people of Howard's generation, I was a great enthusiast of the space program. Right after watching Neil Armstrong step out onto the surface of the moon, I went outside and looked up at the moon in the sky. Howard's film opens with Lovell doing the same thing, on the same night, in his backyard.

That was the secret of the space program's success: For all its technical advancement, it united the world's people in a primitive activity--staring up at the heavens. The trouble was that, however impressive it was to manage the trip, the moon turned out not to be a very interesting place once you got there--sort of a big gravel pit in the sky.

The voyage itself must surely have been thrilling adventure for those who got to make it, but the murky images on TV filtered out much of the wonder for us back on Earth. In the film, Lovell himself observes that the trip "wasn't a miracle. . . . We just decided to go." Well, if the trip wasn't a miracle and the destination wasn't a miracle, why would anybody be surprised at the public's loss of interest?

A year after the first lunar landing, when Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise were struggling to bring their damaged craft back home, the wonder of space travel returned, in the form of terror--a mix of environmental claustrophobia and cosmic agoraphobia. The public was suddenly interested again, at least for the moment.

In the film, the people on the ground, with Howard's seeming endorsement, are miffed by this, as well. Lovell's wife (Kathleen Quinlan) regards it as ordinary morbid curiosity, when it is actually extraordinary morbid curiosity. They didn't make the movie, after all, about an Apollo mission in which everything came off without a hitch.

But if Apollo 13 has its naive side, it's never foolish. The script, by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, is based on Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, the thorough, well-structured book which Lovell wrote (with Jeffrey Kluger) about his scary trip. With a deft touch only hinted at in The Paper, and visible nowhere else in his work, Howard finds a dramatic core in Broyles' and Reinert's symphony of jargon. He makes all the intense chatter about telemetry and trajectory sound like the desperate prayers of technocrat monks--these men want to believe that a safe return won't require a miracle, that they can simply decide on it. The tension rises from their doubt in this.

Visually, the film is vivid and convincing, and Howard has a knack for corny moments, like Lovell's wife losing her wedding ring on launch day, or his adoring old mother (Jean Speegle Howard) being introduced to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and politely asking, "Are you boys in the space program, too?" But it's the urgent rhythm that Howard sets for the performances that makes the film hurtle by in two hours that feel like much less. Ensemble acting of this skill on this scale is a true compliment to the director.

The Houston flight team, led by a gruff Ed Harris, is a terrific Greek chorus, with Loren Dean and the director's brother Clint Howard standing out among many sharp performances. Quinlan has a stock part--the pilot's wife who only wants hubby back safe--but she manages to get some saltiness into it, a hint that she's just a bit weary of Lovell's Tom Swift moon fixation.

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