Review: Dogged pursuit of tragedy’s truth in ‘Challenger Disaster’

William Hurt stars in "The Challenger Disaster."
(Patrick Toselli / Science Channel-BBC)

Getting a dual American premiere Saturday, via Discovery and Science Channel, “The Challenger Disaster” is a BBC-made TV movie about physicist Richard Feynman (William Hurt) and the investigation into the causes of the 1986 space shuttle explosion.

It is a kind of scientific “All the President’s Men,” including moody night scenes in the nation’s capitol, microfiche, phone-booth calls and self-protecting sources guiding Feynman, who served on the commission convened to investigate the accident, toward the truth.

“The Challenger Disaster”: A review of “The Challenger Disaster” in the Nov. 16 Calendar section said that physicist Richard Feynman died in 1998. He died in 1988. —

Feynman is, of course, “that Richard Feynman,” one of the last century’s best known physicists and already the subject of films, plays, an opera, a symphony, a novel and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics. (Which makes this movie’s two-places-at-once premiere somehow fitting. Anyone?) He died in 1998 from a pair of rare cancers; his illness plays a small part in “The Challenger Disaster,” adding a certain race-against-time, fight-against-the-odds energy — not a bigger part, perhaps, than it played in Feynman’s own life.

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Big and rangy and rumpled, Hurt conveys a nice mix of humor and obsession, exasperation and dedication. Feynman feels at first that he has been asked onto the commission because, as he tells supportive wife, Gweneth (Joanne Whalley), “they just want to say that they bagged the famous physicist guy.” He will learn that — despite his butting heads with pro-NASA Chairman Bill Rogers (Brian Dennehy), who wants everything to follow an “orderly and proper procedure” where Feynman just wants to dive to the bottom of things — there may be deeper reasons for his presence.

Unafraid of the facts, however inconvenient the indicated truth, unwilling to take assertions for answers — “Why can’t people just say things the way that they are?” he laments — Feynman finds an ally in Gen. Donald Kutyna, who is not too cool, even in uniform, to take the subway. Together, they make a kind of buddy movie, neatly screwed into the larger one.

As such films go, “The Challenger Disaster” (called merely “The Challenger” in its U.K. release) is excellent. Written by Kate Gartside and directed by James Hawes, photographed with a kind of calm intelligence by Lukas Strebel, it feels admirably straightforward and actual, especially compared to its American kin. The drama is not overstressed — notwithstanding a televised hearing-room finale, complete with the sort of case-closing demonstration that would make Perry Mason proud, a few low-boil confrontations to remind you you’re watching a movie, and some passages of mildly ominous music.

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Neither does the film fetishize its mid-'80s setting, apart perhaps from the early computer-typewriter Feynman uses. Everything looks right, and gets out of the way, and Hawes and Strebel and production designer Anthony Ainsworth have a way with big factory spaces and close intimate ones.

For her part, Gartside knows how to write character into the bones of her dialogue, rather than writing dialogue that expresses it outright. It does have the advantage of being about discovery and the sharing of information, giving the necessary reams of expository dialogue a natural context.

The explosion itself, which happens at the beginning, is conveyed almost entirely by old news footage. It is still difficult to watch, and will doubtless remain so.



‘The Challenger Disaster’

Where: Discovery, Science

When: 9 p.m. Saturday


Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)