The Challenger Disaster is one of those movies – The Social Network and Moneyball are other fairly recent examples – that manage to wring gripping, suspenseful drama from a subject that wouldn’t seem to inspire it. The film, which premieres on Science Channel on Saturday night at 9, recounts the true story of the Rogers Commission, the presidentially appointed group that investigated the cause of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion.
As the Discovery-owned cable net’s first-ever feature film, it’s a triumph, wonderfully paced and smartly written. Anchored by a stirring central performance from William Hurt, it’s also a welcome surprise: The solemn inquiry into the cause of a tragic accident turned into a nifty, shifty whodunit. Or, more precisely, a whatdunit.
Oscar winner Hurt plays physicist Richard Feynman, the iconoclastic Nobel Prize-winning Cal Tech professor who ruffled feathers among his fellow commission members. According to the movie, the mission for many in the group, including its chairman, former Secretary of State Bill Rogers (Brian Dennehy), was to quickly absolve NASA from culpability. Feynman, whose storied career began when as a young scientist he assisted on the Manhattan Project, refused to toe the line.
“I didn’t even want to be on this commission,” he tells Rogers at one point, “but now that I’m on it I’ve got every intention of finding out what went wrong.”
Turns out, a few other commissioners, notably astronaut Sally Ride (Eve Best) and Gen. Donald Kutyna (Bruce Greenwood), were of like mind. They push Feynman to examine the now infamous O rings, the plastic barriers in the shuttle’s rocket boosters that, his experimentation concludes, likely malfunctioned in the freezing temperatures on the morning of the Challenger launch, leading to the explosion and the deaths of its seven crew members.
The 63-year-old Hurt, who has had a string of memorable TV roles lately, is at his wild-eyed best. He plays Feynman with unkempt hair flying in all directions, wearing loose ties and even looser jackets - a man completely at odds with the buttoned-up politicos and military personnel on the commission. Feynman was in the final stages of cancer as he investigated the accident, and his physical deterioration adds urgency to his search for clues. Also looming is guilt over his role in the creation of the A-bomb – “not a good use of science,” he explains regretfully – and there’s a sense that his dedication to the Challenger investigation is driven in part by a desire to make up for it.
When it aired this year on the BBC, the movie was called simply The Challenger. Science Channel says the name was changed to clarify its story for U.S. audiences. I wish it hadn’t been, as the former title is more fitting for a film that is as much about the fascinating, feisty Feynman as it is about the accident or the investigation.
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