The Chal­lenger any­thing but a dis­as­ter of a movie

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - BRAD OSWALD

IF you don’t want to know the an­swer, don’t ask the ques­tion. And if you don’t want any­body to know the an­swer, don’t seek the in­put of peo­ple who are de­ter­mined to ask a lot of ques­tions, over and over and over again. Th­ese lamentably com­mon bits of po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated “wis­dom” — or, rather, the fail­ure to fol­low them — pro­vide the cen­tre­piece for The Chal­lenger, an en­gag­ing new TV movie that looks back at the work of the spe­cial Pres­i­den­tial Com­mis­sion formed to in­ves­ti­gate the ex­plo­sion, shortly af­ter take­off, of the Space Shut­tle Chal­lenger on Jan. 28, 1986. The 14-mem­ber panel charged with iden­ti­fy­ing the cause(s) of the dis­as­ter that claimed the lives of seven as­tro­nauts, in­clud­ing civil­ian/school­teacher Christa McAuliffe, was com­prised mostly of NASA sci­en­tists, mil­i­tary of­fi­cials and lawyers and, as such, stood a very good chance of be­com­ing noth­ing more than an ex­er­cise in var­i­ous in­vested par­ties scram­bling to cover their own be­hinds. Ex­cept — and here’s where the nec­es­sary drama and un­der­stated hero­ism are in­jected into this fact-based drama — for the de­ci­sion by one NASA man­ager to re­cruit No­bel Prize-win­ning Com­mis­sion. It turns out, how­ever, that NASA’s newly ap­pointed ad­min­is­tra­tor is a for­mer stu­dent of Feyn­man’s who be­lieves the pro­fes­sor’s ex­per­tise and in­de­pen­dent out­look might prove cru­cial to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. He’s right, of course. It’s Feyn­man’s re­fusal to ac­cept the ob­fus­ca­tion­driven ex­pla­na­tions from NASA of­fi­cials and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of var­i­ous con­trac­tors that pro­vided parts for the shut­tle that ul­ti­mately leads to the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of faulty O-ring seals and un­usu­ally cold weather as the com­bined cause of the ex­plo­sion. And the way The Chal­lenger un­folds its nar­ra­tive makes it feel very much like a space-race ver­sion of All the Pres­i­dent’s Men, com­plete with se­cret sources, shad­owy vil­lains and the dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion of a pro­tag­o­nist who won’t quit un­til he gets the story straight. Most of the credit for The Chal­lenger’s suc­cess be­longs to Hurt, who has made a ca­reer of bring­ing slightly dam­aged, awk­wardly dis­tant but morally grounded char­ac­ters to life. His por­trayal of Feyn­man hits all the right notes, and it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to watch. Also solid in sup­port are Bruce Green­wood as U.S. Air Force Gen­eral Don­ald Ku­tyna, who be­comes Feyn­man’s strong­est ally on the panel, and Brian Den­nehy as com­mis­sion chair Wil­liam Rogers, whose ad­her­ence to “of­fi­cial” pro­ce­dures puts him at odds with Feyn­man from the out­set. When it aired last week in the U.S., this movie was called The Chal­lenger Dis­as­ter. For mostly prac­ti­cal rea­sons, Canada’s Dis­cov­ery net has opted for the ti­tle the BBC-pro­duced drama car­ried when it was broad­cast in the U.K. It’s a bet­ter choice, be­cause The Chal­lenger de­scribes both the doomed shut­tle and the man who sought jus­tice for the vic­tims of its pre­ventable demise.

PA­TRICK TOSELLI / BBC

Dr. Richard Feyn­man (Wil­liam Hurt) puts the pieces of the space shut­tle to­gether.

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