There’s no denying the power and exhilaration pumping through the heart of Ron Howard's truly excellent docu-drama detailing the incredible story of NASA's ill-fated third lunar landing mission in 1970. Hanks plays Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13 whose childhood dream of setting foot on the moon was so cruelly obliterated by an unfortunate accident three days into the mission. A routine stirring of the oxygen tanks on board the spacecraft, caused an explosion which left the Apollo 13 effectively crippled, and the three astronauts - Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert - in serious danger of not making it home.
It took the combined efforts of the crew in the ship and the hundreds of NASA staff back in Mission Control Houston to get the men safely - and against all odds - back to earth, their improvisational brilliance turning what looked on the face of it to be a national disaster into perhaps the greatest triumph in US space exploration history. From such rich, stirringly heroic source material, Ron Howard - working from a jargon-heavy, yet surprisingly comprehensible script by William Broyles Jnr. and Al Reinert, based on Lovell's memoirs - has constructed a dynamic, urgent tale that grips despite prior knowledge of the eventual outcome. And any liberties taken with accuracy - and there are only a few - are taken solely to increase the film's dramatic tension.
Hanks' determined, square-jawed portrayal is the film's solid centre around which the rest of the cast orbit, but it's a film that hinges less on his performance than on the succession of tricky and mostly untried manoeuvres needed to pilot the ship home. And in the confines of the spacecraft, Hanks, Paxton (never better) and Bacon (very good) operate like a real team, the Oscar-winner graciously sharing the best lines with his co-stars rather than hogging them all to himself. Down in Mission Control, Ed Harris - a shoe-in for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination - stands out as resolute mission controller Gene Kranz who barks, "No American has ever died in space, and they're sure as hell not going to on my watch!" with spine-tingling conviction.
Howard is a director known for his excess sentimentality, and while there are a few too many cuts back to the Lovell household - where his wife, children and friends sit praying in front of the telly - he comes up trumps, managing to keep the domestic drama pretty much in check, never losing sight of the gripping story unfolding in space.
Without using even a single frame of NASA footage, Howard has crafted an authentic, awe-inspiring visual spectacle, from the explosive launch of the Saturn 5 rocket, through to the zero gravity footage filmed on board the appropriately named "Vomit Comet".