History, Legacy & Showmanship
Thursday, 13 August 2020 12:17

Failure Was Not an Option: Remembering “Apollo 13” on its 25th Anniversary

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“It’s heartening to remember now, at a moment of sharp political divisions, how the whole world seemed to hold its collective breath when the three American astronauts were in mortal danger.” — Beverly Gray, author of Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon… and Beyond

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the silver anniversary of the release of Apollo 13, Ron Howard’s popular and award-winning docudrama about the aborted 1970 Apollo 13 lunar expedition starring Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump) as astronaut Jim Lovell.

Apollo 13 — featuring Kevin Bacon (Footloose, Tremors) as Jack Swigert, Bill Paxton (Aliens, Twister) as Fred Haise, Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump, CSI:NY) as Ken Mattingly, Ed Harris (The Right Stuff, The Abyss) as Gene Kranz, and Kathleen Quinlan (Twilight Zone: The Movie, Breakdown) as Marilyn Lovell — was released twenty-five years ago this summer. For the occasion The Bits features a package of statistics and box-office data that places the movie’s performance in context, along with passages from vintage film reviews, a reference/historical listing of the movie’s IMAX re-release presentations, and, finally, an interview segment with a film historian who reflects on the film two and a half decades after its debut. [Read on here...]

Apollo 13

Before we begin, however, we would like to mention, in case you missed it or desire a refresher read, this column’s other Ron Howard-themed retrospective is Far and Away 25th anniversary.



  • 1 = Rank among top-earning movies during opening weekend
  • 2 = Number of Academy Awards
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning films directed by Ron Howard (adjusted for inflation)
  • 2 = Rank among top-earning films of 1995
  • 5 = Number of months between theatrical release and home video release
  • 5 = Number of weeks top-grossing movie (weeks 1-4 and 10)
  • 5 = Rank among Universal’s all-time top-earning films at close of original run
  • 9 = Number of Academy Award nominations
  • 27 = Peak all-time box-office chart position
  • 2,197 = Number of theaters playing the movie during opening week
  • $11,540 = Opening weekend per-screen-average
  • $1.8 million = Box-office gross (IMAX re-release, domestic)
  • $25.4 million = Opening weekend box-office gross (3-day)
  • $38.5 million = Opening weekend box-office gross (5-day holiday)
  • $42.9 million = Opening weekend box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
  • $52.0 million = Production cost
  • $88.0 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $172.1 million = Box-office gross (domestic)
  • $173.8 million = Box-office gross (domestic, first run + IMAX re-release)
  • $181.1 million = Box-office gross (international)
  • $291.1 million = Box-office gross (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • $306.3 million = Box-office gross (international, adjusted for inflation)
  • $355.2 million = Box-office gross (worldwide)
  • $597.4 million = Box-office gross (worldwide, adjusted for inflation)



“Ground Control to Major Tom: Starring Tom Hanks as astronaut Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 hits new heights as the suspenseful true story of bringing three men back from the dark side of the moon. Fasten your seatbelts — it’s a white-knuckle ride. Even if you know how it all turned out (and you should), this amazing journey is harrowing and exhilarating.” — Joe Brown, The Washington Post

Apollo 13 beautifully evokes recent history in ways that resonate strongly today. Cleverly nostalgic in its visual style (Rita Ryack’s costumes are especially right), it harks back to movie making without phony heroics and to the strong spirit of community that enveloped the astronauts and their families. Amazingly, this film manages to seem refreshingly honest while still conforming to the three-act dramatic format of a standard Hollywood hit. It is far and away the best thing Mr. Howard has done (and Far and Away was one of the other kind).” — Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Tom Hanks gives another great performance.” — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

“Ron Howard, the master of Opie-Vision, is certainly well-suited to the kind of sentimental, middle-of-the-road filmmaking of which Apollo 13 is the epitome. And because the material to a certain extent cries out for this kind of worshipful treatment, the picture stands as Howard’s most impressive to date.” — Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

“Howard, who paid tribute to the courage of firefighters in the less-accurate Backdraft, captures the astronauts’ sense of purpose and determination. But he never stops reminding us of how important this story is. The movie would have been more effective if he had just told the story. Howard cryptically explains the science in the control room and during the rescue procedures. He manages to convey the complexity of the challenges, if not always the specifics of the solutions. Since Apollo 13 runs over two hours, Howard wastes time grounding the story through Lovell’s family, which adds little to the drama. Howard forces in far too many reaction shots of family and friends waiting anxiously on the ground for news of the astronauts in space.” — Bob Fenster, The (Phoenix) Arizona Republic

“From liftoff to splashdown, Apollo 13 gives one hell of a ride.” — Richard Corliss, Time

“I just wish that Apollo 13 worked better as a movie, and that Howard’s threshold for corn, mush and twinkly sentiment weren’t so darn wide.” — Edward Guthmann, San Francisco Chronicle

“Near the end, Hanks says quietly to his colleagues, ’Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege flying with you.’ Copy that, Hollywood. To all the cast and crew of the movie Apollo 13, gentlemen, it’s a privilege flying with you.” — Eleanor Ringel, The Atlanta Constitution

“There is a moment early in Apollo 13 when astronaut Jim Lovell is taking some press on a tour of the Kennedy Space Center, and he brags that they have a computer ’that fits in one room and can send out millions of instructions.’ And I’m thinking to myself, hell, I’m writing this review on a better computer than the one that got us to the moon.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“Howard’s movie is not entirely apolitical. But he is canny enough to make his statements tacitly. He is a patriot. He still believes in can-do America. While you’re watching Apollo 13, you will probably believe, too.” — Barbara Shulgasser, San Francisco Examiner

Apollo 13 will inevitably be compared to the only previous large-scale film about the U.S. space program, 1983’s The Right Stuff. A critical success but [box-office] underachiever, earlier pic was ambitious in attempting to outline the origins of U.S. space exploration and to investigate notions of courage and heroism. New effort is much more succinct and conventional in its aims and will no doubt play more successfully with the public.” — Todd McCarthy, Variety

“It’s when Howard tries to humanize the story that Apollo 13 sputters. The director still can’t shoot a simple dramatic scene without having it turn maudlin, drowning in syrup under his annoyingly heavy, manipulative touch. His worst scenes involve Marilyn, Lovell’s wife (Kathleen Quinlan). She wrings her hands a lot and bites her lip to keep from crying when her kids ask her when Daddy is coming home, and it’s a miracle Howard doesn’t add violin music to the mix. Alongside comparable moments in 1983’s The Right Stuff, in which the plight of astronauts’ wives was intelligently explored, Quinlan’s scenes will make you wince. ” — Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

“In a summer filled with the usual high-tech behemoths, the action thriller that leaves them all in the dust is a docudrama about a real-life space mission that went wrong.” — Jay Carr, The Boston Globe

“Director Howard’s approach echoes that of his cast: straightforward, honest, effective. He doesn’t indulge in the directorial derring-do of a self-conscious artist; he doesn’t go after the juicy ironies and insights of an intellectual filmmaker. Apollo 13 pales beside Philip Kaufman’s ambitious, complex The Right Stuff but will probably prove more accessible to most viewers and do much better business.” — Frank Bruni, Detroit Free Press

Apollo 13, one of the most exciting adventure movies of the year, proves that science history can be just as thrilling as science fiction. Based on the aborted Apollo 13 moon expedition, this movie isn’t just a classy, smart docu-drama in the Quiz Show vein. It’s a nail-biter and knuckle-whitener of the first rank: a super real-life techno-thriller that reduces the lurid fantasies of Tom Clancy and his clones to ground zero.” — Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

“When the first print of Apollo 13 came back from the lab, I hope Howard, his actors and writers lighted themselves cigars as big as those that fired up in Mission Control when Apollo 13 splashed down. They earned them.” — Jeff Millar, Houston Chronicle

“As we approach the height of the summer blockbuster season, there are plenty of movies around to make us question the lavishing of so much money and high-tech wizardry on pointless cartoon heroics. With Apollo 13, a film that is in every sense an out-of-this-world triumph, Hollywood’s skills are devoted to an epic story that is worth the retelling.” — Desmond Ryan, The Philadelphia Inquirer


Apollo 13

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