With Apollo 13, Tom Hanks and Ron Howard go from Splash to splashdown in their second collaboration. Their 1984 boy-meets-mermaid story delivered a promising box-office hit for both actor and director; in recent years, Hanks's career has gone into orbit, while Howard's trajectory has tailed off substantially. But Opie's star should rise again on the success of this riveting retelling of the ill-fated 1970 moon shot. Howard faithfully adheres to real-life Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell's book, Lost Moon, the former astronaut's account of the aborted mission. While Howard succumbs to his penchant to oversentimentalize (way too many cutaways to tense and crying family members), he wrings nail-biting suspense out of a story that, after all, just about everybody knows the ending to.
And yet I think Apollo 13 is one of the best movies I've seen that's based on a recent real-life event -- maybe just a tearful-wife shot away from the standard set by All the President's Men. The film may not generate renewed funding for the space program or motivate young people to want to become astronauts the way the Dustin Hoffman-Robert Redford movie swelled the ranks of journalism schools across the country, but it's a true story well-told, one with all the inherent drama of Greek tragedy. Apollo 13 works for me because after peeling away all the media hype, technical complexity, engineering mastery, macho derring-do, and ramifications for the space program, it still boils down to one of the most basic stories and universal themes of them all: I want to go home.