WHENEVER I THINK of Ron Howard I think of freckle-faced
Richie Cunningham from Happy Days, and it is only when
thinking of Richie Cunningham that Howard's films begin to make
sense. How could a director's output be so likable in some instances,
and so insipidly corny in others? To answer that question, you
need only recall the highs and lows of Happy Days, a show
that worked best when it refused to take itself seriously. One
Fonzie "Sit on it!" line was worth a dozen scenes of
Cunningham and Tom Bosley talking about life.
Coming from that background, it only makes sense that Ron Howard's
best films would be his comedies. Splash, Parenthood, and
The Paper are very enjoyable pictures, especially the latter--a
tough-minded comedy-drama so frenetic and spirited I left the
theater saying, "Opie, we hardly knew ye."
And it follows that Howard's worst films are his most earnest.
Backdraft, an ode to the lives of firefighters, treated
its subject so reverently the picture even ended with text that
said something to the effect of, "There are 30,000 firefighters
in America," as if we were all supposed to stop for a moment
of silence. His Far and Away, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole
Kidman as American settlers, was just painfully bad, reaching
its nadir in a maudlin scene where Cruise and Kidman act out their
dreams in a game of "let's pretend."
Now we have Apollo 13, a solemn re-enactment of the near-disaster
that befell NASA's 1970 moon mission after one of the spacecraft's
oxygen tanks exploded. Guess which one of Howard's two categories
this film eventually falls into? (Hint: nobody says "Sit
The film stars Tom Hanks as commander Jim Lovell, with Bill Paxton
and Kevin Bacon as pilots John L. Sigert and Fred W. Haise. We
watch as the men prepare for the flight, their wives get edgy,
and the journey begins. Much is made of the fact that by this
time, America had become bored with the space program, preferring
to watch baseball and listen to Jimi Hendrix rather than observe
a routine lunar landing. The glory days of the Apollo program
were over, giving the proceedings a space-like loneliness that
the film touches upon well.
Then the accident occurs and Hanks utters the famous lines,
"Houston, we have a problem" (which in astronaut language
means "Oh, shit"). The moon landing is called off, the
world wakes up and takes notice, and NASA and the astronauts begin
working together to overcome a series of imminent practical threats:
the loss of oxygen, the lack of power, the lowering temperature.
The film is technically superb--the capsule looks and feels as
though it really is in deep space, complete with authentic zero-gravity
conditions--but the story is more tiring than exciting. The astronauts'
only concern becomes getting home and I couldn't help but feel
the same way.
The movie pays strict attention to detail, and as an act of describing
a historical event has undeniable merit. But as a drama, the movie
lacks interest. We already know the outcome in advance, and the
conflict is chiefly man-versus-circumstance, so all the main characters
ever do is react, suffer and worry.
The actors don't exactly inspire interest, either. Hanks, despite
his recent stature, still comes across as a lightweight, and Paxton's
hapless character often recalls the moment in Aliens when
he says, "Game over man!" Only Bacon lives up to the
challenge of giving a solid performance in a literal vacuum.
What a movie like Apollo 13 requires is a star performance
by the director. But as hard as Howard tries, he lacks the skills
to bring the necessary undertones of terror to the material. Howard
fares well during an early, violent dream sequence, but he falls
into monotony later on when he tries to turn small accidents into
a motif. At various points throughout Apollo 13, we observe,
among other mishaps, a car stall, a woman drop her wedding ring
down the drain, an overhead projector short out and a woman drop
a bowl of salad. That's Ron Howard's idea of being spooky.
Mostly, Howard treats the entire movie as a commemorative event
fit for the Fourth of July weekend, complete with such flourishes
as zooming inside views of the malfunctioning oxygen tank and
rapt panning shots of computer buttons. These sorts of trite effects
are piled on, and the music, by plagiaristic composer James Horner,
fills every corner of the capsule. This brings up the question:
Why go to great lengths to achieve visual realism if you're not
going to respect the silence of space to make the aural experience
I guess it's understandable that each aspect of Apollo 13
tells us exactly how we're supposed to react. After all, Howard
is a child of TV. But a movie like this would benefit from a little
ambiguity. The idea that there might be folly to our ambitions
to inhabit space, spending millions of tax dollars on operations
that can so easily fail, never seems to have crossed Howard's
mind. Maybe Richie Cunningham would disagree, but I think if you're
going to make a movie that revolves around the moon, there ought
to be a dark side.
Other Films by Ron Howard
Film Vault Suggested Links
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Plunkett and Macleane
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