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By Michael E. Ginsberg

Twenty-five years ago this past April, America and the world held their collective breath: three astronauts, their spacecraft crippled by an explosion that depleted their oxygen supply, circled the moon in a desperate effort to return home safely.

This was the heroic story of Apollo 13, which would have made the third landing on the moon had the in-flight explosion not occurred. And it has been thrillingly captured by director Ron Howard in his latest movie, "Apollo 13," releaed last weekend.

The movie follows the three-man crew of commander Jim Lovell, command module pilot Jack Swigert and lunar module pilot Fred Haise, as they struggle with a host of technical problems in their command module, Odyssey, after the initial explosion.

Having lost all the oxygen of the command module, the crew must resort to using the oxygen of the lunar module, which would have taken Lovell and Haise to the moon's surface. To conserve power after shutting down two fuel cells (in an attempt to stop the loss of oxygen), the crew is forced to suffer through near-freezing temperatures. And because their main engine is damaged, the astronauts are forced to use the engine of the lunar module's descent stage to maneuver back to earth.

Two-time defending Oscar champion Tom Hanks stars as Lovell, who commanded Apollo 13 and wrote the book, Lost Moon, upon which the movie is based.

Hanks turns in another phenomenal performance. You can practically see the ice flowing in the test pilot veins of Lovell as he informs Mission Control of the craft's life-threatening emergency with a calm, steady, "Houston, we have a problem."

Hanks also effectively conveys the stunning disappointment Lovell faced as his chance to leave his footprint on the moon escaped with the oxygen fleeing the ruptured tank.

Haise (played by Bill Paxton) and Swigert (Kevin Bacon), are also convincingly portrayed. Paxton may have had the most difficult assignment of the cast, as his character, Haise, spent most of the mission suffering from a severe fever.

In the real world, Mission Control often remains in the background while the astronauts are in the spotlight. But in "Apollo 13," viewers get an inside look at a time when the engineers ruled in Houston, when life-or-death decisions were instantly made, unfettered by budgetary constraints and bureaucratic restrictions.

Ed Harris, who plasy Flight Director Eugene Kranz, exudes this get-it-done-any cost attitude, keeping Mission Control calm, neatly assessing the situation as it unfolds on the ground, soliciting opinions from the various ground controllers and making split-second decisions.

The NASA engineers are also portrayed in this can-do light. At one point in the movie, as Odyssey begins of fill with carbon dioxide, a group of engineers is gathered together, and a heap of what appear to be spare parts is thrust before them.

They are informed that those parts are all that the astronauts have to build with.

Not long after, the group parades through the corridors of the Manned Spacecraft Center triumphantly, wielding a device, made solely from those parts, capable of removing the carbon dioxide from the capsule's atmosphere. It's the sort of moment that makes the audience want to stand up and cheer.

Gary Sinise accurately renders perhaps the most disappointed character in the movie--astronaut Ken Mattingly, who was removed from the flight for backup Swigert due to exposure to German measles a week prior to flight.

Sinise then returns to the movie after the explosion to help determine a way to maximize the remaining power of the spacecraft as the astronauts prespare to return to Earth. It's a vintage NASA scene--the astronaut and engineer, locked together in a room, not leaving until the problem is solved. All the while, they maintain the steely resolve of the fighter jocks and engineers that characterize NASA, despite the dire circumstances.

There was, of course, one final part of the Apollo 13 saga--the anxiety felt by the families of the astronauts.

The focus of the movie is on the Lovell family. The audience feels the sleepless nights of Lovell's wife Marilyn, seated in her bedroom clutching the small NASA radio that lets her listen in on communications between Houston and Apollo 13. The terror of the children is also palpable, especially as they wait to see if Odyssey'sreentry was successful.

The details of the movie are striking. The vest always worn by flight director Kranz is delivered to him just before launch, complete with the mission emblem attached to the front pocket. The return trajectory is calculated using a slide rule. The baseball caps given to the astronauts aboard the recovery ship are exactly like the ones that were really worn by the returning spacemen.

Lovell himself has a cameo role in the movie--he's the Navy commander who greets Hanks on the deck of the recovery ship. At the end of the film, Lovell shakes Hanks's hand.

The weightless scenes are also genuine. They were shot aboard NASA's KC-135 jet, which flies a special, parabolic trajectory to produce almost a minute of weightlessness at a time. The shots of the astronauts enjoying weightlessness early in the mission, performing somersaults and tossing sunglasses and tape players gleefully, add yet another realistic dimension to this space saga.

Unlike other recent historical dramas ("JFK" comes to mind), the movie sticks closely to the basic facts without opinionated flights of fancy from the director to add drama. It is realism and accuracy that puts this movie over the top.

Apollo 13 was perhaps one of America's greatest examples of Yankee ingenuity. As Harris says toward the end of the movie, it was the space program's "finest hour."

"Apollo 13" captures the emotions, the drama and the intellectual energy of those tense days in April, 1970.

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