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Home » Culture and Criticism

The Poppy-Fields Movie Couch Of Fame: Apollo 13

Submitted by on October 31, 2014 – 1:27 PM26 Comments

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 1.26.50 PM

Houston, we have absolutely no problem with this at all.

An all-time-classic PFM nominee from Heather B., it's a film I own IN TWO FORMATS and will still park it to watch the end of whenever it's on cable. Heather?

I have a few poppy-fields movies but my very favorite is Apollo 13. I get totally wrapped up in it every time. During the final minutes, I'm not just waiting for the triumphant moment, I'm sincerely thinking, "Holy crap, they're not going to make it!" as if on the 1,018th viewing, they're suddenly going to burn up on re-entry. The last time I watched it was with a friend who was so concerned about my level of concern that she asked me, "You've seen this before, right?" "YES BUT OH MY GOD IT'S BEEN FOUR MINUTES!"

Here's how it breaks down:

  • lengthy? On TV it's usually a cozy 3-hour block..
  • familiar/frequent? Almost everyone has seen it, it goes through cycles where it's on basic cable all the time, everyone knows the story.
  • classic/award-winner? Best Picture Nominee in 1996 along with a bunch of other Oscar nods. ["Won Best Editing and Sound." — SDB] Also I'm not ashamed to admit that I love the James Horner theme.
  • "Greetings, Professor Falken" (big payoff/long-shot victory a la WarGames)? ["Practically invented the concept IRL." — SDB]
  • "Wanna have a catch?" (Pavlovian tear-jerk; anything with dads opens the ducts for this guy)? "Hello, Houston, this is Odyssey. It's good to see you again." The voice-over at the end about the space program also gets to me.
  • quote-fest? "Houston, we have a problem." "Failure is not an option." "With all due respect sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour." "Don't you worry. If they could get a washing machine to fly, my Jimmy could land it." And my oddball favorites, "That's a negative, Jim. I don't have the measles" and "I can't deal with cleaning up, let's sell the house."
  • caper-ish or -adjacent camaraderie? Camaraderie out the wazoo. While you obviously have the astronauts trying to keep it together, I think it's all about the NASA guys. Something about this large group of smart, resourceful people putting everything they have into getting three people home alive really gets me. The guys trying to make a contraption to get a square peg into a round hole using just the random stuff the astronauts have. Ken coming in and running through scenario after scenario in the simulator. Gene refusing — refusing! — to lose his men. Yeah, yeah, it's nice that the kids/wives don't have to watch their dads/husbands die on TV, but for me, it's all about that quick wide shot of the NASA control room throwing up its collective arms in triumph and relief. Oh, man, I'm getting choked up just thinking about it. The heroes are geeky guys in short-sleeve dress shirts with slide rulers, computers less powerful than my phone, and old-fashioned ingenuity. Awesome.
  • "forget you, melon farmer" (you own it, but will still watch bowdlerized TV verzh) I will complain incessantly about all the stupid places cable breaks for ads but yes, by golly I will watch in wonder every single time.

Thanks, Heather! She goes on to call this a "slam dunk," and fuckin'-A right it is. I too teared up thinking about "it's good to see you again," followed by a roomful of straight-arrow '70s-era smoke-your-feelings dudes cheering. I know what happens. I've seen it seventeen bajillion times. And I burst into tears of relief every single time. You can accuse Ron Howard of going to cinematic Tearjerk-o-Tron 3000 moments like that too often, but you can't deny that he's the king of them. The man can pageant, people.

People forget that this movie is funny, and right on about the teasing and superstitions of a marriage (Marilyn scrabbling at the drain when she loses her ring; Jim at the pre-launch goodbye, smiling that he could swear it's her but he knows Marilyn Lovell doesn't GO to these things). And Tom Hanks is kind of foxy in it.

And on the Bunting family list of great movie boots (yes, it exists) (Barton Fink), Paxton's zero-G chunder is a classic.

I own it on DVD. I bought it on iTunes just in case-ies. If they offered it in a chip like they inject into pets' necks, I would probably get that too. If only for the scene where the engineers, kings of the may at last, dump out that big box of widgets and MacGyver the air filter, it's got my vote.

Heather, you've won a shirt; thanks for submitting!

[Update, 11/23/14: I think this is a first-balloter. Next!]

The Poppy-Fields Movie Couch Of Fame is here. To nominate your own PFM, email bunting at tomatonation dot com with a rundown of the criteria and your argument for why it deserves a cushion. If I use your entry, free loot shall be thine.

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  • Claire says:

    Ooh, defintely. Although one things that's interesting in terms of how it's aged is that my nephews saw it for the first time recently and were VERY distrstful of Bill Paxton, because the only other thing they've ever seen him in was "Agents of SHIELD" where he's a bad guy. We told them that the only bad guy in the movie is equipment error, but they mentioned a couple of times that it was so weird to see Paxton as a good guy.

  • mspaul says:

    Absolutely!! I mean, let's face it. The outcome of this movie was determined a month before I was even born, and yet I'm STILL on the edge of my seat every single time I watch this movie. Which, like everyone else, is every time I see it's on.

  • Angharad says:

    The best thing about that Mission Control shot after reentry is that everyone in the room is suddenly on their feet cheering except Gene, who's been standing but (finally) collapses into his chair. And as much as the reentry sequence makes me tear up, I get a bit choked up at the launch sequence, too. Something about the shot of the astronauts' wives, sobbing and trying to smile and clinging to each other, drives home how just how scary this was for everyone involved.

    There are so many great throwaway lines, too: "Good, you're not dead." and "Is it AM or PM?" "AM. Very very AM" are favorites I've driven my family crazy with over the years.

  • Amy says:

    Almighty yes, +1! "She's not even wearing a bra! You can see everything!"

    Back when this first came on cable, I spent one-too-many nights falling asleep to this movie on the couch. Once I woke to a disturbance outside. The next evening, I was describing the disturbance to my husband, and I said it happened during Apollo 13…to which he did a Liz Lemon-worthy eye roll. I stopped the story I was telling and said, "Well, now I'm not going to tell you how it ends…just kidding, they made it home!"

    Yeah, my love for this one is deep!

  • attica says:

    I don't know about Hanks, but by god, I'd throw Ed Harris in that blond-crew-cut wig down on a blinking console and have my way with him.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Hell, I'd make it a Sinise-way.

  • After this, FROST/NIXON, and RUSH, I'm thinking maybe Howard should stick to doing docudramas from now on (biopics like A BEAUTIFUL MIND and CINDERELLA MAN, on the other hand, seem to come a bit tougher to him, though the latter is better than the former). The rest of his filmography hasn't always given me much joy (I still haven't forgiven him for butchering Dr. Seuss), but when he's sticking to a factually story, somehow, his instincts become razor-sharp, and that's definitely true here. Like Angharad, my favorite part is at the end when, while everyone else is celebrating, Gene simply sits down, clenches his fist, and nods his head. Ed Harris is usually playing such a volcanic force on screen (even when playing a good guy, like here, or John Glenn in THE RIGHT STUFF), it's easy to forget he can also be a subtle actor, and that scene proves it. And yes, even though I knew what was going to happen, I was caught up in it. There were a lot of movies I liked better that year, but this is thrilling and eminently watchable.

  • Jordyn S says:

    It still makes me angry that Braveheart won the Best Picture Oscar instead of Apollo 13. Grrr.

    "You can't run a vacuum cleaner on 12 amps, John" and "It's gotta be instrumentation" are family favorites.

    The grandmother reminds me of my own late grandma – a tough old bird who idolized her very capable son.

  • Anon for this says:

    Excellent choice! I watch this every single time it appears in my TV guide.

    I'm someone who actually remembers my elementary class being lined up and marched to the school library to watch the re-entry live. We were young, but the gravity of the situation was impressed upon us by the behavior of our teachers.

    They stood together, nearly all of them with their arms folded protectively over their chests and waited silently for those excrutiating four minutes. I also distinctly remember seeing more white knuckles than I had ever seen anywhere in my life. Any of us who squirmed or whispered were instantly silenced by one of those "stares" that told you that you were about to get into serious trouble.

    I watch this film anytime it's on and am instantly transported to that scary, nerve-wracking visit to the school library. The relief at the end is always palpable.

  • Anon for this says:


    I shouldn't write this stuff before coffee.

  • Josh says:

    Total winner in my book. You gotta love how well cast this sucker is from top to bottom.

    Loren Dean as the engineer who figures out the power crisis is great, Ned Vaughn & Brett Cullen are both terrific as the CAPCOM guys: "Roger that, Jim." They just all nail it. ("And you sir, are a steely-eyed missile man.")

    Usually in a sprawling cast like this there's a couple of weak links, but you really don't have it here. That's crazy.

  • bluesabriel says:


    I remember watching this one on tv while stopped in a hotel room for the night, scrolling through Twitter, and finding that Sars had also been caught by it. Slam dunk, indeed!

  • Lizard says:

    Another yes vote, and another admirer of Ed Harris just sinking back in his chair once the astronauts make it back safely. So great.
    And I love the "build a filter with paper and duct tape" scenes so much.

    I own a lot of these kinds of 90s movies on DVD, just because they're so watchable.

  • Elisa says:

    This is THE Poppy Field movie for me. I will drop everything and watch in awe, like I've never seen if before. It's about the NASA guys for me, too. I love watching them yell at each other and stare at the random items they have use to fix the carbon monoxide problem. The applause at the end. Kevin Bacon before they made him the bad guy in every movie. Heh.

  • Cora says:

    "MOM, you're SQUISHING me."

  • Alan Swann says:

    "Gentlemen, what are your intentions?… I'd like to go home."


    "Those people don't put one piece of equipment on my lawn. If they have a problem with that, they can take it up with my husband. He'll be home… [fights back sob] on FRIDAY!"

    Great film. Great choice.

  • Kat From Jersey says:

    A resounding yes from me! I'm always on board with a great ensemble movie, full of "Hey, it's that guy(s)!" [I'm looking at you, Gabriel Jarret from 'Real Genius"], where everyone is working together against great odds to accomplish something. I think I love the Mission Control scenes even better than the scenes set in space. Plus, Tom Hanks is just so good in anything/everything! Ooh, and Loren Dean and his horn rimmed glasses as the fixit guy!

  • scout1222 says:

    Surprisingly, I haven't seen this movie all that many times.

    But Ed Harris in that vest.

    Ed Harris! Vest!

  • ET says:

    Actually went home and pulled out the DVD after reading the post on Friday. I think that pretty much confirms it for me. I also love the scenes with the engineers MacGyver the square peg for the round hole. For those that love these nerdy parts, I recommend the "spider" episode of "from the earth to the moon", it's all about the building of the LEM.

  • Jaybird says:

    This totally makes my list. I had watched it the night before the Columbia disaster, in fact, and for some odd reason that made me cry harder when the news hit. Now I try to watch it on or around the anniversary of the Challenger explosion–maybe so I can pretend that everybody on those two missions made it home safely against all odds, too.

  • Rlnpirate says:

    This is THE GO-TO movie for me. Now matter what time, or what else is going on, if I see it on the guide, I watch. Whether its the beginning or the middle or only 10 minutes at the end.

    All of it is good, and I could easily repeat every word of dialog, but my favorite part is when the astronauts are getting ready for launch. When Gunther puts his knee into their chest to strap them in and then shakes Jim Lovells hand before he closes the hatch. I tear up every time. Because some guys didn't make it home, and they all knew that.

    Yeah perfect choice.

  • Jenny says:

    Late to the party, but great choice. I, too, can watch this movie whenever it is on TV, no matter what part of it I catch it at.

    As an aside, the book that it is based on, Lost Moon, is really, really great. My mom got it for my dad before the movie was in the works and I kind of co-opted it from him and have probably read it 50 times. I always get something new out of it.

  • DensityDuck says:

    Yeah this one is awesome. A good pairing with "October Sky", if you want inspirational space movies (forget you, GRAVITY).

    Another great line is when Tom Hanks says "We live in a world where man has walked on the moon. And it wasn't a miracle. We just decided to go."

  • Rachel says:

    I couldn't agree more, just finished watching the latest broadcast on A&E (so happy to happen upon it!). This is my go-to "feel good" movie.
    I'm hoping one of the readers will help me since this has been bugging me for years…who is the blonde woman who appears in many scenes with Marilyn at the house (she's holding Marilyn's hand during the re-entry scene). I'm not sure if she's a friend or relative, don't recall ever hearing her referred to by name. Thanks!

  • Angharad says:

    @Rachel – A bit late with this, but I've always assumed the blonde woman was a housekeeper/nanny the Lovells employed. It wasn't as uncommon in the late '60s/early '70s as it is now, especially for a semi-prominent family. I think just about everything we see her doing is household-related – making tea, making salad, letting Marilyn know that one of her kids is asking for her.

  • Robin says:

    @Rachel, @Angharad I believe the blonde woman is Pete Conrad's wife, Jane. IMDB says she was played by Michele Little who is married to Brett Cullen. Um, can you tell I just watched it again? The launch sequence is my favorite but really it's hard to pick just one sequence over another.

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