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Guts and glory soar in "Apollo 13'

History and Hollywood have rarely meshed well, primarily because filmmakers usually invoke the sort of poor judgment that would have everyone still living without fire or the wheel, if our ancestors had been so sloppy. Pick a turgid topic and you have Jefferson in Paris. Tinker with the truth for the sake of merchandising and you have Pocahontas.

They do not remember the history of Hollywood and history, and the audience is doomed to repeat it at six bucks a pop.

Occasionally, however, a filmmaker devoted to authenticity meets a project that doesn't need to be rewritten to be enthralling. When those twin lightning bolts of preparation and opportunity collide, the result is magnificent, moving, even inspirational.

The result is a film like director Ron Howard's Apollo 13.

The first marvel of Apollo 13 is that nobody had yet attempted to film this story of NASA's most daunting mission _ a true test of ingenuity and teamwork that not only illustrates what is right about the space program, but also ourselves.

Triumph over uncalculated odds and impending tragedy is what makes human beings great. Howard cherishes, but doesn't romanticize, that notion; nobody needs to make speeches to show the desperate dedication of these astronauts or their ground support.

Apollo 13, then, is like those NASA heroes: expert, professional in manner, placing duty above all else, yet never forgetting that there are flesh-and-blood people operating the machinery.

Twenty-five years and America's growing disinterest in its space program have dulled our recollection of this mission gone terribly, almost tragically, wrong. In 1970 _ less than a year after Neil Armstrong's moon walk _ Apollo 13's lunar landing goal was business as usual. That is, until an explosion on board caused an oxygen leak and power failure that aborted the mission, and almost made it impossible for the three astronauts inside to come home.

Even though we know how this story ended, Howard's film is gripping, edge-of-your-seat entertainment. The technical aspects of Apollo 13 are awesome: thunderous sound effects that bring the effects of rocket propulsion into your gut, seamless digitized effects that re-create familiar NASA sights in fresh and exciting ways, and the wonder of filming in zero gravity conditions, which portrays weightlessness without wires or blue-screen effects that would undercut reality. When it comes to space-age excitement, Apollo 13 has the right stuff, down to James Horner's haunting musical score (featuring the ethereal voice of rock diva Annie Lennox).

The only shortcut Howard takes _ and this certainly isn't a fault _ is the casting of Tom Hanks as flight leader Jim Lovell (whose book inspired the film). No other actor offers immediate heroism as Hanks does; he has such a rapport with moviegoers that any character he plays is automatically the one we pull for. Several people have asked in recent weeks if Hanks will win a third Oscar for this role. The answer is no, and that's exactly how he wants it to be.

Apollo 13, like the mission that inspired it, is foremost an ensemble effort. Hanks doesn't have the big payoff scenes that Academy voters dote upon. He's simply one of three guys in the cockpit, and Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert and Bill Paxton as Fred Haise fill the other two seats with equal skill.

Showy moments belong to those left behind on Earth: Ed Harris' commanding presence in Mission Control; Gary Sinise's intensity as Ken Mattingly, an astronaut who was supposed to fly Apollo 13, but was sidelined by illness (luckily, since his expertise is a key element in the crew's salvation); Kathleen Quinlan also deserves praise, for making Marilyn Lovell more than the typical astronaut's wife role based on a hairstyle and one-dimensional worry.

Comparisons with Hollywood's previous space-flight saga The Right Stuff are unavoidable, but inappropriate. Apollo 13 mainly deals with a one-week mission, not decades of NASA development. If Lovell, Haise and Swigert seem stiff compared to the jet jockeys in The Right Stuff, so be it. By 1970, astronauts were technicians closer in stoic spirit to John Glenn than to rowdy Gus Grissom. Apollo 13 isn't working on some satirical agenda; pride, honor and old-fashioned daring is the flight plan here.

All are brilliantly realized in the best movie of the summer, perhaps all of 1995. The sights and sounds of Apollo 13 are unforgettable, as is a twinge of patriotism at mission's end. Say it now, before Bob Dole makes the declaration uncool: Apollo 13 is a film that makes one proud to be an American.


Apollo 13

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Kathleen Quinlan

Screenplay: William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, based on the book Lost Moon (now titled Apollo 13) by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger

Rating: PG; profanity, sexual situations

Running time: 140 min.

Studio: Universal Pictures