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Everybody wants in the scripted game, but most firsts are painful lessons in just how hard it is to get fiction right. That first comedy is often lame. That first drama often pales in comparison to what’s already out there. Channels devoted to unscripted fare often find that diversifying their content is easier in concept than execution.
However, in something of a miracle or at least a wonderful surprise, the Science Channel, in association with the BBC, has delivered a little gem in The Challenger Disaster (Nov. 16, 9 p.m., also shown on Discovery Channel).
The film flies on the back of William Hurt, who delivers yet another incredible performance, this time as the famous physicist, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman.
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Feynman is the only truly independent member of the Presidential Commission tasked with finding out why the Challenger shuttle exploded 73 seconds into its flight in 1986, killing all seven crewmembers, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.
Many biopics fail because they can’t muster enough drama – the kind that equals that of the subject matter or elevates a staid but important event. In this case, the Science Channel has an event that millions of people remember (and many witnessed live on television), and one where the drama is literally the explosion itself. And yet the seemingly mundane search for the truth by a committee takes flight precisely because Hurt is one of those rare actors who is constantly magnetic in every scene, no matter how devoid of action. And then there’s the fact that the real-life Feynman was himself a riveting character and, in this particular instance, a relentless force for scientific truth when confronted by numerous obstacles.
The Challenger Disaster makes it clear early on that NASA is in full-on protection mode and paints the head of the Presidential Commission, William Rogers (Brian Dennehy), as wanting everybody on the same page: What happened was a freak accident that couldn’t have been prevented.
But Feynman, who was asked to be on the panel by a former student and NASA’s acting administrator, William Robert Graham, was battling cancer and was reluctant to even be on the commission, so the last thing he wants is to do is waste his time and participate in what quickly starts looking like a cover-up.
Hurt deftly manages to immediately bring Feynman to life – no small feat in a film that clocks in at roughly an hour and a half. If you’re going to get into the scripted game as the Science Channel is here, it helps to have the BBC do the bulk of the heavy lifting. Written by Kate Gartside and directed by James Hawes, The Challenger Disaster adeptly uses its story time by leaning on Hurt to capture Feynman’s brilliance and captivating personality while also showing that Feynman’s own sense of compressed mortality and his adherence to scientific truth helped stop what could have been a whitewash.
Feynman, struggling with his health concerns and his own natural inclination to, at that point in his life, be at home in California, listening to music and puttering around the house, doesn’t believe in sitting around when a mystery needs solving. The film is based on his book What Do You Care What Other People Think?
Bruce Greenwood also does fine work as U.S. Air Force General Donald Kutyna, who helps make it clear that Feynman’s independence is essential to discovering the truth, since everyone else on the commission (including Kutyna) is compromised in some way by their associations with NASA, the government or the military.
Credit the Science Channel with figuring out that this story had the kind of smarts and scientific elements at its core to be a great fit and perfect fodder for its foray into scripted material. Feynman’s scientific sleuthing, quick mind and ability to relate complex ideas to laypeople with ease is just the kind of combination the Science Channel should have been seeking out. It just got lucky that both Feynman and Hurt – and the story itself – are pretty damned compelling.
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