History, Legacy & Showmanship

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

August 13, 2020 - 12:17 pm   |   by
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Apollo 13


In 2002, seven years after Apollo 13’s initial release, IMAX Corporation, Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment chose Ron Howard’s docudrama to be the first live-action, feature-length motion picture to be converted to IMAX 70mm. This kicked off a showcase/premium-format presentation trend that continues to this day.

Apollo 13 (along with Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones, released a couple months later) were essentially test releases for the DMR (Digital Media Remastering) process. The film’s running time was reduced by several minutes (so as to fit on the then-standard-size projection platter). As well, the film’s 2.39:1 theatrical aspect ratio was modified to 1.66:1. Both modifications were approved by the film’s director.

(A few of Disney’s animated films were given an IMAX and other large formats release prior to Apollo 13, but these did not undergo the DMR process nor were they live-action and so Apollo 13 retains the claim of the first live-action theatrical feature film to be given an IMAX release.)

The IMAX re-premiere of Apollo 13 was held September 12th at the Universal Studios cinema complex at Citywalk with the public release commencing September 20th. The IMAX prints remained in circulation for several months eventually playing at most IMAX venues as an exclusive or on a rotational schedule with other films.

The initial Apollo 13 IMAX bookings in North America were the following:



  • Edmonton — SilverCity West Edmonton Mall


  • Tempe — Arizona Mills


  • Dublin — Hacienda Crossing
  • Los Angeles — The Bridge: Cinema de Lux
  • Sacramento — Esquire
  • San Francisco — Metreon
  • Universal City — Universal Citywalk


  • Washington — National Air and Space Museum [opened October 25th]


  • Merritt Island — Kennedy Space Center [opened September 27th]


  • Buford — Mall of Georgia


  • Chicago — Navy Pier


  • New Orleans — The Aquarium


  • Natick — Jordan’s Furniture


  • Dearborn — Henry Ford Museum


  • New York — Lincoln Square
  • West Nyack — Palisades Center


  • Toronto — Paramount


  • Dallas — Cinemark 17
  • San Antonio — Rivercenter


  • Seattle — Pacific Science Center

Newspaper ad for Apollo 13



Beverly Gray is the author of Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon…and Beyond (HarperCollins, 2003; audio version forthcoming).

Beverly Gray

Beverly’s other books include Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How ’The Graduate’ Became the Touchstone of a Generation (Algonquin, 2017) and Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking (Renaissance, 2000), which was re-published in 2013 under the more tasteful title Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, the updated third edition. Her writings have also appeared in numerous periodicals and newspapers including The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Gray kindly spoke to The Bits about the appeal and legacy of Apollo 13. (She was previously interviewed for this column’s retrospectives on The Graduate and Far and Away.)

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think Apollo 13 ought to be remembered on its 25th anniversary (and 50th anniversary of the original mission)?

Beverly Gray: I find it timely to watch Apollo 13 today, because the film takes us back to a long-ago era when people everywhere cheered for the success of the American space program. 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.

Coate: When did you first see Apollo 13?

Gray: I initially saw the film in 1995, upon its first release. I remember it as being tremendously exciting, despite the fact that we all knew in advance the happy outcome. I was also very glad to see the details of the near-disaster spelled out on screen, because back in 1970 I couldn’t pretend to understand exactly what had gone wrong. A personal note: in April 1970, I was one of 56 Japanese-speaking guides serving in the U.S. Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. Because U.S. astronauts had first walked on the moon the previous year, our thousands of daily Japanese visitors were thrilled by the opportunity to view our genuine moon rock and other outer-space mementoes. When the Apollo 13 crisis arose, our visitors expected us guides to have inside knowledge about the challenges ahead. We knew no more than they did, but it was touching to hear their assurances that they were praying for our men and wishing them well. After the successful touch-down, Japanese guests shook our hands and congratulated us as though we were personally responsible.

Newspaper ad for Apollo 13Coate: In what way is Apollo 13 a significant motion picture?

Gray: Apollo 13 differs from many popular outer-space movies (like, for example, The Martian) in that it depicts an actual event as realistically as possible. Unlike the recent (and not hugely successful) Neil Armstrong biopic called First Man, Apollo 13 could not rely on computer-generated effects, and so considerable ingenuity was required to give an authentic picture of space travel. In this, the production team was helped considerably by the folks at NASA, who chose to use this production as a sort of time-capsule to show future generations of space enthusiasts what the mission had been like. With NASA’s cooperation, every detail (including the period-specific matchbooks in the Johnson Space Center ashtrays) was scrutinized for accuracy. And the filmmakers were granted the unique privilege of filming brief scenes aboard NASA’s KC-135, the so-called “Vomit Comet” used to introduce astronauts to weightless conditions.

Coate: Can you discuss the lead casting choices and their performances?

Gray: Apollo 13 is based on the memoir of mission commander James Lovell, and the film artfully focuses on his leadership of the team. The role requires a strong, sympathetic “everyman” type, and Tom Hanks was a natural choice. Not only had he essentially started his stellar film career on a Ron Howard project (1984’s Splash) but he had long since graduated from comic roles to Oscar-winning portrayals in serious fare like Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994). Hanks had been a space buff since childhood, and enjoyed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Apollo program. And audiences loved him. The other astronauts who are central to the story were played by Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, and Gary Sinise, all of whom were both appealing and convincing. Oscar voters singled out two highly sympathetic supporting players as nominees. These were Kathleen Quinlan as the steadfast but agonized Marilyn Lovell and Ed Harris as flight director Gene Kranz, who presides over the urgent deliberations at the Johnson Space Center.

But I want to make note here of the members of the Howard family who played key small roles in Apollo 13. Howard’s wife Cheryl has her traditional good-luck cameo in a crowd scene, which also includes Howard’s eldest daughter, future actress Bryce Dallas Howard. They are not intended to be noticeable, but Howard’s parents and brother Clint won more significant roles. Father Rance Howard, a veteran character actor, is visible sitting next to Marilyn Lovell, watching the televised feed of the crippled spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. He is dressed as a minister, and originally had a more significant role in this tense scene, but it ended up being scrapped. (Ron Howard praised his father’s performance, but apologized that the scene was left on the cutting room floor.) Brother Clint, also a space buff, wore a white shirt, tie, and thick glasses to portray Sy Liebergot, one of the actual NASA science nerds stationed at Mission Control during the crisis. Of the Howard family, mother Jean landed the showiest part. She plays the aged but still feisty Blanche Lovell, astronaut Jim’s mother and biggest fan. At an anxious moment, her forthright “Don’t you worry, honey. If they could get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy could land it” has often elicited chuckles and cheers from audiences.

Coate: In what way was Ron Howard ideally suited (or not) to direct Apollo 13 and where do you think the film ranks among his body of work?

Gray: At the time he directed Apollo 13, Ron Howard was best known for upbeat comedies and fantasies. The big epic dramas he shot in the early 1990s, Backdraft and Far and Away, contained some powerful moments, but didn’t deeply connect with critics or fans. Perhaps that’s why his direction of Apollo 13 was sadly underrated in some quarters. Although Howard won the Directors Guild award for his work on the film, its nine Oscar nominations did not include one for him. And reviewers like Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times spoke snidely of Howard as “the master of Opie-vision.” I believe Turan and others were overlooking Howard’s ability to take a mammoth logistical enterprise and mold it into compelling entertainment. Personally I believe Apollo 13 might be Howard’s finest hour as a filmmaker in the grand tradition of predecessors like John Ford.

Coate: What is the legacy of Apollo 13?

Gray: Apollo 13, a thrilling example of epic filmmaking, can also be considered an historic document, hewing as closely as possible to an actual world event. The importance of NASA’s involvement in the making of the film cannot be overstated. This film was intended to capture the realities of a tense, nearly catastrophic, moment in manned space travel, and I feel it does so brilliantly.

Coate: Thank you, Beverly, for sharing your thoughts about Apollo 13 on the occasion of its 25th anniversary.




Selected images copyright/courtesy Imagine Entertainment, Los Angeles Times, Universal Pictures, Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

Apollo 13



The primary references for this project were regional newspaper coverage and trade reports published in The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety.

All figures and data included in this article pertain to the United States and Canada except where stated otherwise.



Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, David Ayers, Jonathan Goeldner, Sheldon Hall, Jeffry Johnson, Bill Kretzel, and Sean Weitzel.



  • Rick Dior (Re-Recording Mixer), 1947-1998
  • Jean Speegle Howard (“Blanche Lovell”), 1927-2000
  • John Dullaghan (“Reporter”), 1930-2009
  • Paul Mantee (“Reporter”), 1931-2013
  • James Horner (Composer), 1953-2015
  • Bill Paxton (“Fred Haise”), 1955-2017
  • Rance Howard (“Reverend”), 1928-2017
  • Al Reinert (Screenplay), 1947-2018

-Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link. (You can also follow Michael on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

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