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

August 13, 2020 - 12:17 pm   |   by

“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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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)

Apollo 13 (4K Ultra HD)