Part of the quintessential American childhood (at least in the twentieth century) is a space phase, when planets, constellations, and moon-walking feel as magical as they truly are. I was lucky enough to have this phase coincide with the release of Apollo 13 in 1995 (or perhaps Apollo 13 launched the phase; I don’t remember). Ron Howard’s retelling of the Apollo 13 moon mission’s dramatic and uncertain return to Earth captured my attention (a feat, considering I was 9), and remains one of a handful of films I remember from the first decade of my life.
The film stars Tom Hanks (Jim Lovell), Kevin Bacon (Jack Swigert), and Bill Paxton (Fred Haise) as the crew members of the Apollo 13 spacecraft, and Gary Sinise (Ken Mattingly) and Ed Harris (Gene Krantz) , among many others, as part of the NASA team that works around the clock to construct MacGyver-esque solutions to the craft’s issues, and to bring the crew safely home.
Twenty years after its release, and forty-five years after the actual Apollo 13 mission, the film is still gripping. In fact, as we get further and further away from our actual interstellar trips to the moon, Apollo 13 allows us to share an experience that few can remember, and which has faded in our collective memory. At what point in my life was the entire western world united in its concern for the lives of three men? At what point in my life has anyone undertaken such an expedition? Never (our last trip to the moon undertaken way back in 1972). Still, the film makes me feel as though I was a part of it, and that the Apollo program by extension is a part of my heritage.
Much of that feeling can be attributed to the score written by the late James Horner. With its mix of period songs, and an original theme evocative of the military (played by a lone trumpet over orchestral accompaniment), Apollo 13’s music helps transport you to the 1970, and fills you with pride in the accomplishments of man.
And that’s the genius of the film. It recreates that moment in our history, and in particular the feeling of suspense. Not action movie suspense, which is loud and quickly resolved, but real, bona fide suspense, filled with waiting, and worry, and silence. Suspense like the suspense of labor, which is intense, and long, and exhausting, but which (in spite of the lack of bright flashes and a soundtrack of beating tympanies) is so absorbing that it bends time itself.
Not that Apollo 13 skews time (it runs at a concise 140 minutes). You feel, however, through all of the silence, the sweating, the smoking, and the coffee, exactly how long those six days were for everyone involved. Not only that, but you also feel the vulnerability of humanity, and our shared tenacity to launch ourselves away from the Earth in a tin can, and into an infinite, cold, oxygen-less space, trusting in gravity and our own ingenuity to bring us back home again, and all in the name of curiosity (how wonderful is humanity?).
Apollo 13 was symbolic of all of this, and, as such, I doubt the film will ever really feel old. Although technology may advance, and the world may change, human nature will not. As I carried my daughter to bed following the launch scene, she pointed to the ceiling and said, “Up in the sky,” so perhaps Apollo 13 still has the ability to spark in the imagination of the next generation a desire to explore, and the confidence to do so in spite of the risk (or maybe my daughter just liked the rocket ship).