This movie should be called “Smart and Smarter.” In addition to the thrilling story, masterful performances, and impeccable technical authenticity, it is a heartening story of the triumph of smart guys with slide rules, a relief in this era of movies about characters who triumph by being dumb. Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks plays real-life astronaut- hero Jim Lovell in this true story of the mission to the moon that almost left three astronauts stranded in space, when an oxygen tank exploded. Even though we know it turned out all right, even though the technical material is dense and the action is confined to a space smaller than an elevator, the tension is breathtaking, as the astronauts and the mission control team in Houston try to think their way back home. Everything from duct tape to the cover of the flight manual to one of the astronaut’s socks is used in this pre-McGuyver story, where mission control asks simply, “What’s good on that ship?” and builds from there.
Because of the technical material and intensity of the story, it is a good idea to prepare younger kids beforehand by telling them what the movie is about, and you may want to reassure them, since it is a true story, that the astronauts did come home all right.
Talk to older kids about the way that Mission Control solves the problems happening thousands of miles away, by re-creating the conditions inside the spaceship. Point out how the adults handle the strain, sometimes losing their tempers or blaming one another (or trying to escape blame), but mostly working very well together. Lovell and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinese) were presented with a very tough problem when exposure to the measles led Mission Control to pull Mattingly from the mission. Lovell tries to insist that Mattingly go along, but ultimately realizes that the good of the mission has to override his feelings of loyalty. Kids may have their own ideas about how this should have been handled.
The legendary “Failure is not an option,” said by Gene Kranz, head of Mission Control, when most people were certain the astronauts would never make it back, is worth discussing. So are the changes since you were your children’s age. Note that everyone in Mission Control is a white male (and they all smoke all the time). They are amazed that a computer is small enough to fit into one room. And you may have to explain why adults who watch the movie laugh when the engineers take out their slide rules — for kids today, they are more exotic than an abacus.