'Apollo 13' celebrates the nerds' finest hours


"Apollo 13" is the squarest movie Hollywood has made since "The Longest Day," and in many ways it celebrates the same values: teamwork, labor, valor and commitment to mission. Set in the '70s, it's the best '50s movie of the '90s.

Astutely, Ron Howard's film avoids the big temptations. To begin with, there's no overlay of revisionist irony, no spirit of poking fun at the rigid code of the military and science professionals who got the job done. The early '70s aren't sentimentalized into an epoch of lost American innocence or a comical sideburn/Nehru-jacket paradise; it's seen as those who were there then saw it, which is to say, as reality, not a wiggy time trip.

But best of all, the script, by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, keeps the macho bullstuff at a minimum and makes the point that the ostensible heroes -- astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), floating around in a freezing Spam can 200,000 miles out in the deep dark blue -- were saved by a roomful of pencil-necked geeks in ties, crew cuts, lots of pens in their shirt pockets and a bad three-pack-a-day nicotine jones.

The movie recounts the triumph of the nerds. In April of 1970, Apollo 13 took off for the moon, and America responded with a gigantic yawn. The networks dumped the astronaut's news conference in favor of reruns. A few days out, however, the boring mission got interesting fast, when a mysterious explosion rocked the craft, threw it off course, and opened a leak that spewed oxygen into space. The power began to ebb. The spacecraft was in danger of turning into the first interplanetary sarcophagus.

Thus was America's first outer space emergency born and thus, for four days, did the geniuses at NASA work 25-hour days to improvise some way to get the boys back home. As mission control chief Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) says grimly, "Failure is not an option."

Once it gets going, "Apollo 13" has such forward thrust it all but exiles character from its confines and instead focuses on issues of leadership. This leads to peculiarities: Harris's Kranz emerges as the most heroic presence, a real John Wayne of Mission Control, but his background and the forces that formed him are never evoked. The second strongest presence is Gary Sinise, as Ken Mattingly, who'd been on the mission crew until two days before launch but was bumped (unfairly) because he had been exposed to measles. He is charged with working out power-saving shortcuts in re-entry procedures and performs with extraordinary grace under pressure.

Nor does the script whitewash interpersonal difficulties on the craft. New boy Swigert wasn't quite trusted by old boys Lovell and Haise, and under the pressure of impending catastrophe those feelings expressed themselves in unfortunately raw outbursts. But as the pressures wore against them, the men reached some sort of professional rapprochement and their teamwork got them through the exceedingly difficult landing procedures.

The official hero of the story is Hanks's Lovell, a true-blue right stuff kind of guy with a beautiful wife and beautiful children and a beautiful split-level in the 'burbs. Hanks is admirable, but he can't get over the dramatic reality that however useful and even heroic such men are in real crises, they're not very interesting in stories. Thus he's never quite the take-charge guy whose strength of will comes to dominate. Rather, he works more as a conciliator between his two crew members. He's not Sergeant Rock, he's Dr. Ruth.

Kathleen Quinlan does a good job as his heroic wife Marilyn, struggling with the pressures of the emergency, but she is not served well by the fashions of the '70s, particularly the obscenely short dresses and the Vegas show girl blue mascara. It's been reported that John Sayles was brought in to supply human touches to counterbalance the techno-lyric script, and he's done a good job in a few slight strokes, giving the domestic background a sense of warm reality.

But the true rhetorical mode of "Apollo 13" is that techno-poetry. It is said to be extremely authentic, but who could tell? It's like a crash course in Practical Problem Solving 101, expressed in a language whose meanings are obscure but whose tones are exact:

"Dammit, we've got to rig a way to skeezaks the gyrosynthesizer to the ionizatror!"

"Why don't we run the circuitry through the geovapordyne, then down through the waxobrachasphere and save two amps that way!"

"Great idea, Chuck!"

No, those aren't exact quotes -- at least I don't think they are.

This stuff works so well because the production is so convincing. Production designer Michael Corenblith and his team have created a technical environment that feels extremely authentic. Best of all are the portrayals of the takeoff, the accident and the re-entry, utterly convincing and new. The production uses no archival footage. It gives us angles on space culture that seem to re-invent it pictorially and go a long way toward recapturing the spirit of adventure of those now-forgotten times.

Of course the secret agenda of the piece is obvious to any one: It means to -- and it does -- contrast the can-do spirit of those times with the won't-consider-it spirit of our own.

"Apollo 13"

Starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon

Directed by Ron Howard

Released by Universal

Rated PG

*** 1/2

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