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In essence, that was Apollo 13's problem. After the explosion, Aquarius became a lifeboat; in it the astronauts would try sailing home on the gravitational breezes of the moon and the earth. To steer their vessel, they would refute the argument that astronauts were not so much pilots as passengers or cargo--they had to navigate using the sun and the earth as a compass. And with doom dogging their flight, newsfolk and viewers finally paid attention. Imminent death is great for ratings.
Today it may be the recipe for hero making in the new conservative style. Here, after all, was a team that actually fulfilled its contract with America. The Apollo gang got a man on the moon in one urgent decade. Then they worked even more impressively to bring three men back safely from the beyond. William Broyles Jr., the former editor of Texas Monthly and Newsweek, and creator of the TV series China Beach, who wrote Apollo 13's script with Al Reinert, spells out the family values: "In these cynical times, when exploitation of violence in movies is the norm, it was great to make a movie about real, ordinary people who do extraordinary things."
As any producer or key grip can attest, the making of a big movie can seem more complex and fraught with peril than any missile launch. The miracle of Apollo 13 is that for a relatively spare $52 million, Howard and his team got it right. They knew what they wanted--and what they didn't. They were not aiming for the wild mix of comedy and rapture in the ultimate astronaut movie, The Right Stuff (1983); that, says Harris, "was about the space program as a p.r. phenomenon, whereas Apollo 13 is about men fulfilling a duty." They didn't want a stratospheric disaster movie like the whiny Marooned, a 1969 annoyance about a fatal mission and a dead commander (named Jim!), or a paranoid thriller like 1978's zippy Capricorn One. The astronauts had felt burned by some of the space soap operas. "Listen," Lovell told Howard, "just tell our story as it happened, and you'll have a thrilling movie."
Howard's goal was meticulous realism, in everything from the arc of emotion to the gizmos on the module dashboards. "There must be more than 400 controls, switches, circuit breakers, buttons and lights in the spacecraft," says Dave Scott, the film's technical adviser, who as commander of Apollo 15 was the seventh man to walk on the moon. "I spent about three months looking at them all and found just one little, insignificant thing wrong: the color of a small scribe on a window."
"It was like cramming for an exam," says Harris of the film's preproduction. Hanks calls himself "the most annoying person around" as a stickler for following procedure. He pored over the air-to-ground transcripts of the Apollo 13 flight to make sure he got the nomenclature down solid. "Most people," he says, "think a spacecraft moves like the Millennium Falcon as it zooms by the Death Star at light speed to defeat Darth Vader. We did this film in the real physical universe. It not only gave us more credence as filmmakers and actors, but it should help the movie become more involving for audiences." The hyper-real special effects were provided by James Cameron's Digital Domain unit, with Cameron (director of The Terminator and True Lies) serving as an uncredited consultant. Remarkably, not one frame of film was lifted from documentaries or NASA footage. All effects were created from scratch.