My first memory of news from the outside world is the death of Judy Garland on June 22, 1969. Let me tell you, Dorothy’s death rocked my little seven-year-old world. Less than a month later, my second “real life” memory came from something even more astonishing–man landed on the moon. I don’t remember sitting around the TV with my family (we weren’t the type to do that anyway); I just remember the accomplishment. That’s also my earliest memory of being fascinated by space, something that continues to this day. I went through my sci-fi period during my teen years and actually considered going into a career in astronomy until music took over. So it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of APOLLO 13.
Even if you already know the story of the famed doomed space mission, Ron Howard’s film is a nail-biter. The film is every bit as exciting and emotional as any story about space should be, thanks in no small part to Tom Hanks’ anchoring lead performance and a team of great supporting players, including Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, and Kathleen Quinlan. James Horner‘s score is haunting and thrilling and shows the composer at his very best.
A majestic trumpet solo opens the film and comes back at various points throughout the film conveying the heroic endeavors of the astronauts and the NASA technicians at Mission Control. Horner uses his trademark snare drum riffs to heighten the tension and suspense as systems fail aboard the ship. Another effective technique is the quick, descending piano clusters that signal the astronauts’ measured chaos and inner panic.
The most poignant sequence occurs as the astronauts get close enough to the moon to see the details of its terrain knowing full well they will never set foot on it. Horner keeps his music quiet and uses Annie Lennox’s hollow, pure vocals to convey sadness and loss. The trumpet melody comes back at the end, forlorn and lonely.
But it’s the memorable finale that gives Horner’s his biggest moment to shine. As the spacecraft plummets toward earth, the snare drum riffs in quick succession as the orchestra builds and builds. The bottom drops out, breathless and silent with anticipation for the static crackle of the astronauts’ voices, followed by a full orchestral explosion at their safe return. I defy you not to shed a few joyful tears.
Nominated for nine Oscars, APOLLO 13 should have won Best Picture. But Ron Howard’s inexplicable exclusion from the Director category virtually guaranteed a win for Mel Gibson’s lackluster direction and the vastly inferior (though still entertaining) BRAVEHEART. (It didn’t hurt that BRAVEHEART had two studios behind it, automatically doubling its votes).
Though most film music fans prefer Horner’s work on BRAVEHEART, I’m in the APOLLO 13 camp. Horner’s score captures the awe-inspiring sight of space, the knuckle-whitening tension of the mission and the unmistakable patriotism of the space program.