Friday Fundamentals in Film: Apollo 13

“From now on we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. It wasn’t a miracle. We just decided to go.” Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) spoke those words early on in Apollo 13, setting a tone of both hubris and awesome pluck and ingenuity. This is an inspiring movie and quite unlike others in this Fundamentals in Film series in that the men in the movie weren’t in a

battle between good and evil, or facing conventional conflict against an enemy, but were struggling, literally, against time and space. All the while, however, they also had to draw deeply from their own reserves of character and resolve.

The movie starts with the landing of Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon (something my parents got me out of bed to watch on tv) and then focuses on the true story of the men of Apollo 13 and their families as they prepared for what would have been the third moonwalk and instead turned into a harrowing fight for survival after an explosion while in space knocks out most of their ship’s power, fuel and oxygen. Forced from their Odyssey capsule the three astronauts (Lovell, Fred Haise, Jack Swigert) squeeze into the still attached lunar module (LEM) designed for two men. While the astronauts take steps and make calculations to survive, an initially frantic ground crew in Houston under the direction of Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) works around the clock to find a way to bring the men home safely.

There weren’t any scary monsters in the movie to leap out and eat someone, or bad guys with fiendish plots, but the suspense and tension are constant and intensifying as you watch the astronauts and Houston deal with problem after problem. The character study in the movie comes from watching the men control their emotions and fears in order to focus on the incredibly complex and even unfair obstacles facing them, taking them on one by one and ingeniously improvising new uses for their available equipment. Another key factor in successfully returning the men to earth was the quality of leadership exhibited by Lovell and Kranz; without their examples the men under their respective commands could have quickly fallen prey to panic and fault-finding. Apollo 13 is an excellent example of leadership under great stress.

It is also an interesting contrast to see how rudimentary the technology was in many ways. The astronauts, for example, perform complex mathematical calculations with paper and pencil while engineers in Houston were still using slide rules. It kind of makes you wonder about how well today’s students or engineers could perform under stress and without battery power.

Discussion Questions:


    1. How did the training the astronauts and the technicians received affect the way each was able to respond? Give examples.


    1. Lovell had to chose between bumping his pilot, Ken Mattingly, from the flight at almost the last minute or replacing the entire crew for the mission. Why do you think he chose to tell Mattingly his decision face to face and to accept the responsibility for a decision that was forced on him? What other ways could he have handled this?


    1. Emotionally, hHow did Lovell and Kranz react to the crisis, and what affect do you think this had on the men around them and the outcome of the mission?


    1. In what ways did Lovell encourage his fellow astronauts at different times during the crisis?

Points to ponder:


    • How much do we rely on our technology, and how can we cope without it in an emergency?


    • How important was it for Gene Kranz to say, “Failure is not an option”? What affect did this have?


Great quotes:

“Houston, we have a problem.” (Jim Lovell)

“Failure is not an option.” (Gene Kranz)

NASA Director: “This could be the greatest disaster NASA’s ever experienced.”
Kranz: “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

About Fundamentals in Film: this series began as a class I taught to junior high and high school boys as a way to use the entertainment media to explore concepts of honor, honesty, duty and accountability. The movies were selected to demonstrate these themes and as a contrast to television that typically either portrays men as Homer Simpsons or professional wrestlers, with little in between those extremes. I wrote questions and points to ponder for each movie to stimulate discussion and to get the boys to articulate their thoughts and reactions to each movie. I offer this series here on this blog for the benefit of parents or others looking for a fun but challenging way to reinforce these concepts in their own families or groups. As the list of films grows each week, feel free to use these guides and to mix and match movies according to your interests or those of your group. I’m also always open to suggestions for other movies that can be added to the series. You can browse the entire series by clicking on the “Fundamentals in Film” category in the right sidebar of this blog.

4 thoughts on “Friday Fundamentals in Film: Apollo 13

  1. I may have to cheat on this. Let me think about it for a while.

    You see, I just don’t like dramas and this particular movie is nothing if not a drama.

    The reason I may have to chat is because even though I never saw the movie I DID watch the actual historical events as they played out on TV. (Back in the Neanderthal days when we had to actually get up and manually change channels or volume)

    I’m familiar with the topic but not the movie of it.

  2. Apollo 13 was a great movie, and I’m glad you put this series on your site. My son, The-Artist-Formerly-Known-As-Justin (“The Teenager” for short), wants to be a filmmaker more than life itself, but I’ve had a hard time getting him to think beyond the technology and cinematography, and more about the story. Of course, as a teenager, anything I say is suspect, so it’s fortunate that he visited numerous colleges and heard the same thing from admissions counselors. My question to you is: Given that teenagers think all parents are geeks (at best), do you have any suggestions on how to get your teenager to talk to his parents long enough to even start such a conversation?

  3. Good question, Elizabeth. This film series came about originally a few years ago pretty much because I was trying to answer that as well (see the first “High Noon” post and the “Class Report” post in this series – click on the Film category in the right sidebar for a complete list). The movies got their attention and the discussions afterward got to be pretty interesting though it was tough at first to get them to engage. Also, as the Bible says, “be not dismayed by their faces”; sometimes it may not seem that anything is sinking in and then they surprise you.

    I’m starting this class over again in a couple of weeks for a new group of boys and with a new twist: the fathers are joining the group. I’ve “promoted” it as a pizza and a movie series just for guys, but the dads know what it’s about and I’m really looking forward to seeing the discussions that will come about in class and out as a result. I think there’s a “safety” in making the discussion about the movie that just might open doors.

    I don’t know that I have enough wisdom to speak to your specific case, but I judge you to be a pretty creative person. It might not be old movies, but you may be able to find a topic or common ground were you can engage your son as an adult (perhaps in a group) and share some of the hard-won lessons you’ve learned without having it come off as a lecture. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

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