November 13, 2013

‘The Challenger Disaster’ movie plays out like a thriller

“The Challenger Disaster” is such a good drama you may not be aware at first that you’re also learning something about the scientific process.

We don’t automatically think of science as the stuff of riveting filmmaking, but from “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” to “Edison, the Man,” “Madame Curie,” to “The Right Stuff,” Hollywood has hit dramatic pay dirt with scientific subjects over the years.

For its first dramatic feature film, the Science Channel looked into the not-too-distant past to tell the story of how one scientist challenged the U.S. government and NASA to ensure the real story behind the Challenger disaster wasn’t swept under a bureaucratic rug.

The true story of Dr. Richard Feynman’s seemingly quixotic quest for the truth of what caused the 1986 shuttle explosion, airing concurrently Saturday on the Science and Discovery channels, is made even more dramatic by the fact that he was battling cancer that would take his life two years later. He lived long enough, though, to influence the final report by the special Challenger committee, and to write his own appendix.

Feynman, played to gruff and tousled perfection by Oscar winner William Hurt, was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was initially reluctant to be part of the special commission on the Challenger to be chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers (Brian Dennehy). It doesn’t take much in the film for his wife (Joanne Whalley) to convince her husband that the loss of the seven astronauts, including New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe, was reason enough for him to lend his expertise to the quest for what caused the explosion.

From the beginning, though, Feynman realizes the deck is stacked against a full airing of the facts when Rogers declares that, of course, NASA did an excellent job.

The commission, which also includes Dr. Sally Ride (Eve Best, “The King’s Speech”), the first woman in space, is supposed to function as a unit. No one is supposed to go off on his own to pursue possible causes for the shuttle explosion.

Naturally, that’s exactly what Feynman does, going on his own to NASA operations in Huntsville, Ala., and staying on in Florida to examine recovered pieces of the shuttle stored in an empty hangar after the rest of the committee returns to Washington.

“The Challenger Disaster” is such a good drama you may not be aware at first that you’re also learning something about the scientific process. But Feynman’s painstaking commitment to find the truth was the most effective defense against NASA’s attempt to preserve its own reputation and against bureaucratic inertia.

“The Challenger Disaster” feels at times like an actual thriller, but that isn’t only because of James Hawes’ well-paced direction: It’s also because the real story has elements of a thriller. At one point, Feynman types up a document about his preliminary findings, sends it to the commission to be distributed to other members and finds it has mysteriously disappeared.

In the end, the reason behind the bureaucratic dust storm over Challenger has to do with petty, budgetary self-defensiveness and agency hubris.

“The Challenger Disaster” is not only a noble first effort by the Science Channel, but also an eminently watchable one. The film is both dramatically viable and instructive. Yes, we learn about science, but perhaps more importantly, we also learn about standing your ground no matter what challenges you face.

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