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The Challenger anything but a disaster of a movie

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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 physicist Dr. Richard Feynman to the investigative team.

As presented in The Challenger (which airs Sunday at 7 p.m. on Discovery), the story of the Challenger commission is really the story of Feynman's (portrayed by the always-interesting William Hurt) unwillingness to follow official procedures and his determination to find the single, scientific reason for the space shuttle's catastrophic failure.

Feynman, as portrayed here, is a man of tremendous intellect who has dedicated the later years of his working life to teaching and mentoring college students. Having worked as a scientist on the U.S. government's atomic-bomb program during the Second World War, he has very little use for bureaucrats, politicians or military brass. He's also dealing with what will soon be a terminal illness, so he's even less inclined to abide time-wasting people or tactics.

Which, of course, makes it all the more surprising when he gets the call asking him to join the Presidential 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 obfuscation-driven 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.

Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 G9


Updated on Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 7:39 AM CST: minor editing

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