There seems to be more public interest these days in a movie about space exploration than there is in the space program itself.
Of course, the real program doesn’t have Forrest Gump while “Apollo 13” does. Or rather, the new film has Tom Hanks - the next best thing to Forrest, even though Hanks is not especially Gumplike here.
In “Apollo 13,” Hanks plays Jim Lovell, commander of the unlucky 13th moon mission. It isn’t Lovell’s fault when things go haywire, but it certainly is his problem.
It’s also trouble for his mission mates, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), and for the guys at Mission Control.
In real life, you may recall, the astronauts made it back to Earth. But even though you know how things will turn out, director Ron Howard manages to maintain suspense throughout the movie without resorting to melodramatics or becoming overly manipulative.
Based on “Lost Moon” (the nonfiction account of the near-tragedy, written by Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger), this film is mainly set in 1970 - a time which, like our own, had seen a sharp decline in public support for space exploration. But the public’s interest is peaked when an oxygen tank explodes on the mission, placing the lives of the flight crew in jeopardy.
You might expect a movie about space exploration to celebrate true grit. But Howard (“The Paper,” “Parenthood”) surprises you by focusing as much on the bright stuff as on the right stuff.
The astronauts are heroes here, but they’re not the only heroes. Those faceless Mission Control guys - with their slide rules and pocket protectors and pot bellies - are saluted for their levelheadedness and, even more, for their good old American ingenuity.
Buck Rogers meets Mr. Fixit as “Lost in Space” turns into “Saved in Space.” For each new problem the astronauts face, the earthbound eggheads dream up an answer.
Not enough oxygen? Too much carbon dioxide? Power shortages?
Hey, they have it covered.
Some of their solutions are hilariously lowtech: One glitch is corrected with the use of duct tape and a sock.
Working from a script by William Broyles Jr. (creator of TV’s “China Beach”) and Al Reinert (director of the superb Apollo documentary, “For All Mankind”), Howard has fashioned a simple, straightforward docudrama that pretty much lets the story tell itself.
This director doesn’t go in for the irony and complexity that made “The Right Stuff” a classic of skeptical patriotism. In fact, “Apollo 13” is the just sort of movie that the squares who didn’t like “The Right Stuff” were probably hoping the 1983 film would be.
“Apollo 13” is certainly literal-minded yet it isn’t unintelligent. Howard’s steady craftsmanship serves the material well even though I suspect I’d have enjoyed the new film even more if he’d taken the risk of concentrating further on the Mission Control team.
Many of those guys remain just a little too faceless here although a few do come into focus. Among those who emerge are Gene Kranz, the determined flight director played by Ed Harris (who was John Glenn in “The Right Stuff”), and the nerdy-but-decisive engineer played by Clint Howard (the director’s famously weird-looking brother).
The heroes also include Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise, Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump”), an astronaut who is scheduled to fly the mission until he is grounded after being exposed to the measles.
Mattingly pitches in by helping to solve a particularly vexing technical problem. But not everyone on the ground is heroic.
The movie subtly disses one scientist for caring more about keeping his job than about assuring the safe return of the flight crew.
If you’re old enough to remember the early ‘70s, “Apollo 13” is, in some ways, a trip down a stretch of Memory Lane that you may have preferred to avoid. That era’s fashions are on view in the film in all their embarrassingly ugly splendor.
“Apollo 13” isn’t about acting, although the ensemble cast (including Kathleen Quinlan as Lovell’s steadfast wife) performs as an effective unit. And Hanks is a terrific choice for the lead because he can appear strong and military without slipping over into Sgt. Rock corniness.
Modest is as modest does.
Even if it’s a hit, “Apollo 13” may not in itself be enough to return public interest in the space program to the high it achieved when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. From today’s perspective, those days seem a long way off.
But by doing what it does as well as it does it, this movie could be one small step. It’s a trip, regardless.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Apollo 13” Location: East Sprague, Newport and Showboat cinemas Credits: Directed by Ron Howard, starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kathleen Quinlan and Kevin Bacon Running time: 2:10 Rating: PG