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Apollo 13

Apollo 13(1995)

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For the cast and crew of Apollo 13 (1995), realism was the name of the game. After all, the actual tale on which the film was based was suspenseful enough on its own to enthrall an audience -- even though its outcome was hardly a secret. On April 11, 1970, the Apollo 13 spacecraft had blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center, intended as the third manned mission to the lunar surface. Three days later, over 200,000 miles away, an oxygen tank exploded, and the mission changed from one of exploration to one of returning safely to Earth, with power, heat, and water all dwindling. Against this backdrop, the ingenuity of the three astronauts on board and of the mission controllers in Houston became the stuff of spellbinding drama.

In 1994, mission commander James Lovell published a book about the experience, co-written by journalist Jeffrey Kluger, entitled Lost Moon. It was immediately snapped up by producers Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, whose Imagine Entertainment had a distribution deal with Universal Pictures; Howard would also direct. Writers William Broyles, Jr., and Al Reinert were hired to craft a screenplay, with John Sayles lending an uncredited script polish. Reinert's contributions were key, for he had produced and directed the award-winning documentary For All Mankind (1989), which chronicled the entire Apollo program.

During the writing process, Broyles pictured Kevin Costner in the lead role of James Lovell because of the actor's resemblance to the man, but the part went to Tom Hanks, a lifelong space enthusiast who knew all the Apollo missions well. "When we did the launch sequence," Hanks later recalled, "in our pressure suits, with the helmets on and the air being pumped into us, and I could only hear the other two guys breathing through their microphones, and then with the capsule being shaken, I tell you, I felt like I was there. I definitely felt as though I was on my way. It was truly exhilarating."

Hanks and his fellow "astronaut" cast members, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon, trained at Johnson Space Center and flew simulated shuttle missions at NASA's Space Camp facility in Huntsville, Alabama. Ed Harris, who plays Flight Director Gene Kranz, took a crash course at Flight Controller School. Even the bit players seen in Mission Control spent time with real controllers and studied audiotapes so that their background dialogue would sound authentic.

Meanwhile, Howard had replica lunar and command modules built on a soundstage and inside a Boeing KC-135 airplane used by NASA to train astronauts. By flying in steep dives, the plane created weightless conditions for about 25 seconds at a time. Over 600 dives were required to obtain all the necessary "weightless" footage. Back on the ground, cast and crew endured three weeks of twelve-hour days filming on a soundstage at 34 degrees Fahrenheit, to simulate conditions experienced by the real crew. All the while, James Lovell and David Scott -- the commander of the Apollo 15 mission -- were on hand as technical advisors.

Lovell later said that while some interpersonal conflicts were created to enhance the drama, on a technical level the film was "as authentic as possible without making it a documentary." Ironically, for all the authenticity, the film's most famous line was an alteration on the real thing. The line is "Houston, we have a problem," and it was used as the centerpiece of the film's advertising campaign and as the tagline on the posters. But the real line uttered by James Lovell on April 14, 1970, was "Houston, we've had a problem." The change was subtle, but it allowed the screenwriters to inject more immediacy and foreboding into the moment.

When the real-life drama was over, the Apollo 13 astronauts were treated to a parade in Chicago and a meeting with President Nixon. After that, remembered Lovell, "the hoopla died down pretty quickly.... NASA wanted to forget about this flight. It was a failure." Apollo 13 the movie, however, was an unqualified success, becoming a box-office hit and scoring nine Oscar nominations, including nods for Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Harris), Supporting Actress (Kathleen Quinlan), Score, Art Direction, and Visual Effects. It won for Best Film Editing and Best Sound.

Two cameos to look for: James Lovell appears as the captain of the ship greeting the returning astronauts, and famed producer-director Roger Corman, a mentor of Ron Howard's, can be seen as a U.S. congressman taking a tour of the Kennedy Space Center.

By Jeremy Arnold

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