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Challenger

What’s it About?

Factual drama exploring the truth behind the space shuttle Challenger’s 1986 explosion.

The Challenger”

Directed by James Hawes

By Vic

8 out of 10

At 11:38 am, on a frosty January morning, in 1986, NASA’s Space Shuttle “Challenger” exploded and disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean. Debris landed in the water just off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. There were no survivors and all of the astronauts, including beloved educator Christa McAuliffe, perished.

To date, this was NASA’s and America’s worst space disaster involving an actual launch. NASA was forced to shut down the program and went into a nearly 3 year hiatus. After the tragedy, President Reagan urged the formation of the Rogers Commission (Rogers is portrayed by Brian Dennehy, here) to investigate the disaster and to re-assess every possible angle of the tragedy, leaving no stone un-turned.

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Director James Hawes (The 39 Steps), the BBC, The Science Channel and writer/actress Kate Gartside (Rescue Me) bring to the small screen a mesmerizing film about the aftermath of the Challenger disaster which involves the politics, ethics, economical and personal strife caused by the event. The movie is dynamic, complex and thought provoking on many levels and it is a harrowing account of the various pieces of an elaborate puzzle. Gartside, smartly bases the movie on the last auto-biographical work from renowned Physicist Richard P. Feynman named “What Do You Care What People Think?”

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Actor William Hurt (Mr Brooks, The Incredible Hulk, Altered States) plays Feynman and in a very fascinating performance, Hurt turns this docu-historical drama into a finely tuned and precise film that works unbelievably well because of Hurt’s realism and command of his portrayal of Dr Feynman. The movie revolves around Feynman as it covers him teaching, hearing of the disaster, being called in to participate in the commission to eventually becoming disenchanted by Washington’s double standards which includes deception, hidden agendas, military proposals, funding and everything but the kitchen sink. 

Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days, Below) stars as General Kutyna, who plays a large part in the Commission’s investigation (But ultimately has an agenda, too). Greenwood, who is always impressive to watch, is immediately like-able and seems to be the only one receptive of the eccentric Feynman, where everyone else remains frosty towards him. As the movie progresses, Hawes’ methodical approach benefits the film all the while pulling us deeper into a web of complications involving NASA, Morton Thiokol, The Air Force and the Space Program. Hawes makes Hurt’s character the center and keeps the history grounded. For Feynman, it is about the Challenger first, even before himself (he is asked to phone his Doctor several times, leading to an ominous conclusion) and others. He is a crusader figure who doesn’t fit in and is ostracized not once but a few times for his way of looking at things.

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This is where Hurt really shines. Hurt makes Feynman interesting and the science and technical details just flow off his lips and we always understand his perspective. Hurt’s Feynman is disheveled, somewhat nervous, quirky but never easily neglected or pushed aside. Hawes and Gartside deliver a different sort of historical drama as we begin to associate with Feynman and even other participants, one of whom, is Astronaut Sally Ride. To their credit, the movie is fascinating, factual and somber. It is well told and one grows to like Hurt’s awkward Feynman on many levels. Greenwood compliments Hurt the most, here, as he tries to help Feynman reconcile all of the gray areas involved in the politics of the disaster and what may eventually happen to NASA and the Air Force.

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I recommend “The Challenger” very highly especially for those who appreciate history, The Space Program, and a well told story that is intriguing and solemn. Hurt’s Feynman is the powerful center of this made for cable movie that is caring, efficient and sometimes emotional. By the last act, Hurt’s performance takes on an urgent vibe that will keep you in his corner until the very end. Hawes is to be commended for a nice looking production with a minimal budget to work with and his production designers do a very good job re-creating the era. Instead Hawes concentrates on history, the people involved, multi-layered machinations and cross agency agendas which is prevalent within the Commission and Washington, D.C. But always successfully keeps Feynman and the viewer morally grounded like he was in true life. Highly recommended!

You understand the implications of the oxygen being activated? I do. The astronauts had to do that themselves. Which means they were ALIVE for at least some of those two minutes and thirty six seconds before they slammed into the ocean. Mr Rogers I’m an atheist, I personally doubt they’re touching the face of God so I prefer to show my respect by finding the CAUSE of their appalling deaths and not stand around looking sad”

– Richard Feynman (William Hurt)

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