FILMS

Outer and inner space

APOLLO 13 Directed by Ron Howard

Brian D. Johnson July 10 1995
FILMS

Outer and inner space

APOLLO 13 Directed by Ron Howard

Brian D. Johnson July 10 1995

Outer and inner space

Drama unfurls in the sky and in a smoke shop

FILMS

APOLLO 13 Directed by Ron Howard

The story is well-known. On April 13, 1970, three American astronauts sent out a distress call from space. They were 205,000 miles from Earth and closing in on the Moon when an oxygen tank exploded, rendering the command module of their spacecraft useless. The drama that transpired during the next four days, as the men fought to return home against terrifying odds, galvanized the world. Apollo 13 re-enacts their incredible stoiy with painstaking authenticity. And, considering that the outcome—a safe landing—is a foregone conclusion, the movie is tremendously suspenseful.

Apollo 13 goes where Hollywood has never gone before. Rocket-ship flicks—2001: A Space Odyssey, Aliens, Star Trek—have always been futuristic, and relatively unreal. But this movie takes place in a very tangible past, a world of Cold War and crude computers. Taking up where The Right Stuff (1983) left off, it is a tale of three men trapped in a tin can, weightless and waiting. With all the pulse-quickening tension of a good thriller, Apollo 13 is the space equivalent of a classic submarine movie, one with the crew stuck on the ocean floor while the oxygen runs out.

As family man Jim Lovell, the veteran astronaut who dreams of becoming the fifth man to walk on the Moon, Tom Hanks

leads a first-rate cast. Kevin Bacon portrays the swinging fly-boy bachelor Jack Swigert, a last-minute replacement for Ken Mattingly, who is scrubbed from the crew after being exposed to measles. A poised, soft-spoken Gary Sinise plays Mattingly, who contributes to the rescue mission from a flight simulator on the ground. Ed Harris brings true grit to the part of Gene Kranz, who runs Mission Control in Houston. And Kathleen Quinlan makes the best of an unenviable role as Lovell’s distraught wife, Marilyn. The one sketchy character is the third astronaut, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), who spends the movie suffering through a urinary infection.

Director Ron Howard, whose credits range from Splash to Far and Away, departs from his usual soft-headed style in Apollo 13. Despite a few sitcom-cute scenes of Lovell’s family, the director creates a rigorous narrative that never loses its thrust. The movie begins with a teased-out countdown to the launch, which is a spectacular sequence. Then, as the crisis develops, Howard methodically builds the drama by cutting back and forth between the capsule and the army of nerdy, chain-smoking scientists in Houston. The script is a blitz of technical language, some of it impenetrable, but the jargon enriches the sense of veracity. And, as in any good episode of ER, it serves as the music of suspense. Desperation, meanwhile, provides a comic counterpoint:

in one scene, the astronauts improvise repairs to their spacecraft with socks and duct tape.

While sticking closely to the facts, the film-makers take some obvious dramatic licence. Early on, they throw the audience a curve by setting up Bacon’s character as a possible culprit in the Apollo’s malfunction. (Anyone who saw Bacon go white-water rafting with Meryl Streep in The River Wild knows that this man is not to be trusted as a travelling companion.) Bacon’s character is vindicated, but the innuendo adds to the intrigue.

Hanks, meanwhile, turns in a solid, heartfelt performance—one considerably less contrived than his Oscar^ winning stunts as an AIDS-afflicted § homosexual in Philadelphia (1993) £ and an idiot Everyman in Forrest \ Gump (1994). In Gump, Hanks served 2 as the mascot for a phoney, cloying revision of recent American history. In Apollo 13, he helps simulate one thin slice of that history, but on a much more lifelike scale. He makes rocket science look easy.

SMOKE

Directed by Wayne Wang

At the opposite end of the scale from outer space, Smoke finds great storytelling at the comer store. The action revolves around an old-fashioned cigar store in Brooklyn, N.Y. Its manager, Auggie (Harvey Keitel), has an eccentric hobby: for 14 years he has been taking photographs of his comer every day at exactly the same time. “It’s just my little part of the world,” he says, “but things take place there just like everywhere else.”

That could serve as a coda for the film— hang out long enough with the regulars and you learn their secrets. Paul (William Hurt) is a novelist who has been unable to write since his wife was killed in the cross fire of a holdup. He befriends the mercurial Rashid (Harold Perrineau Jr.), a teenager on the mn who keeps changing his name and is determined to confront his estranged father (Forest Whitaker) . Auggie, meanwhile, is confronted by an old flame (Stockard Channing) who tells him he is the father of a teenage drug addict.

Like smoke rings, the separate storylines gradually drift into each other. American novelist Paul Auster’s ingenious script is layered with nuance. And director Wayne Wang {The Joy Luck Club) frames the dialogue with an unmoving camera, breaking stride only near the end. His Spartan style creates the enclosed, slightly precious ambience of a stage play. But it allows the actors to shine—particularly Keitel. Smoke shows that drama can be produced without pyrotechnics, by the simple combustion of good writing and strong acting.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON