As a rule, I am wary of Hollywood’s depictions of historical events. They often tinker with the truth, change timelines and the order of events, misrepresent characters and create drama where there was none. Apollo 13 sticks surprisingly close to the truth. The script did change a few details, but they were relatively minor changes. The role of a few of the people involved was enhanced, while a few others didn’t feature in the story at all. While this makes it a less than accurate portrayal of history, this is at the end of the day a movie and not a documentary. And I can see that casting every single person involved would’ve made the cast too huge and left a lot of the actors with too little to do.
The film plays up the drama a bit. It shows the astronauts, Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert losing their tempers and arguing with each other. This might seem justified given the stress that they were under, but the truth is that these men were professionals. They were used to risk and danger, so they remained calm, and they did their jobs. I feel the need to point this out, but I’ll admit that this is another minor departure from the truth, and it is, I suppose, justified by the demands of film making.
Apollo 13 was launched on 11th April 1970. After two days in space without any problems, there was an explosion in one of the oxygen tanks in the service module and the crew lost their main engine, all the oxygen in the main spacecraft and all the power save for a few batteries which had to be reserved for re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. It was a set of emergencies that mission control had never imagined could happen all at the same time. Their consoles were showing them data that was so hard to believe that they assumed at first that it was an instrumentation error, that the data was false.
Soon enough, they realised that it wasn’t. They saw the enormity of the problems confronting the crew, and they got to work solving them one by one. The crew was moved to the lunar module or the LM, which was still intact, as mission control got to work figuring out the course of action required to bring the crew home using only the lunar module’s engines while rationing resources. They had more than enough oxygen in the LM, but water was limited and so was power. They had to turn everything off that they could and conserve power.
The lunar module was designed to support two men on the surface of the moon for two days. Now it was required to support three men for four days. The engines of the lunar module were never designed to be the ones driving the whole craft, command module, service module and lunar module. They were designed to fire only after separating from the main craft and getting into orbit around the moon. But this was moot because it was the only engine they had, and they had to use it and hope that it worked. It did.
The real story of Apollo 13 is dramatic enough that it didn’t need any made up storylines, and Ron Howard, wisely, didn’t add any. He tells it pretty much as it was, and the result is a fantastic movie. It draws you in from the first frame, and you’re hooked, you’re involved, and you end up caring deeply about the characters. You know how it turns out, going in, but that doesn’t get in the way of the tension ratcheting up and by the end, you’re on the edge of your seat willing things to turn out okay.
The most interesting thing to me in this story, apart from the drama and the tension of a good space movie, is all the science. We know that the three astronauts survived. But the truth is that they had a very real chance of dying and being lost in space forever. That they didn’t is the result of the ingenuity of everyone involved. This film takes the time to lay out the challenges and present the solutions that the engineers and the controllers working on the ground came up with, solutions and workarounds that ultimately saved the crew.
The director manages to do this without ever letting it get boring. There is no tedious technical detail and no obscure conversations that are hard to follow. The film moves at a good pace and the viewer is involved all the way through. The casting is good, and the music enhances the experience. There have been so many movies made about space, some of them science fiction of the highest calibre. Apollo 13 is science fact that can stand up against the best of them.