After a needlessly claustrophobic opening, BBC 2’s factual drama The Challenger quickly establishes itself as a fine TV movie. William Hurt gives a magnetic and facially dynamic performance as Dr. Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize-winning physicist with a useful knack for demonstrating complex scientific concepts to lay people.
It’s Feynman’s great teaching ability which causes an ex-student to recruit him for a presidentially-commissioned investigation into the 1986 failed launch of NASA’s space shuttle Challenger, a tragedy which caused the deaths of seven astronauts.
The film, directed by James Hawes, who has also worked on BBC favourites Doctor Who and Merlin, opens with the Challenger disaster itself. Events are related in a well-edited mash up of real news coverage and the reactions of Feynman’s wife and daughter as they watch the news, and explosion footage is also cleverly juxtaposed with Feynman lecturing. As Feynman tells the students ‘science teaches us what the rules of evidence are. We mess with that at our peril’, the truth of his words is clear in the televised screaming of Americans watching the short-lived launch from Kennedy Space Centre.
It’s not long before Feynman reluctantly jets off to Washington, DC to join a team of specialists investigating what caused the shuttle to fail after just 73 seconds of flight. From here Kate Garside’s script is almost like a murder-mystery; for any present-day viewer who knows that the answer lies in the malfunction of rubber seals provided by manufacturing company Morton Thiokol it’s satisfying to watch the clues build up on-screen. Feynman’s uncompromised morals and simple desire to reach the truth, unhampered by the political agendas of his biased peers, prompts him to take a ferocious approach toward NASA. This results in his being snubbed by the rest of the team like an unpopular school kid, but he does gain the assistance of US Air Force General Kutyna (Bruce Greenwood).
Kutyna’s character arc provides a welcome twist to the narrative, which also becomes complicated by Feynman’s medical problems. His cancer is at first only a sub-plot; sidelined by the film makers just as Feynman pushes thoughts of his illness to one side and avoids his doctor’s calls, allowing his research into the Challenger disaster to dominate his mind. But this can only go on so long. As the climax of the investigation nears Feynman’s health deteriorates, forcing him to leave Washington and plunging viewers into an agonised suspense as to whether the truth will out. And, of course, it does, in a triumphant final-act representation of Feynman’s gift for explaining science.
The BBC have vastly favoured the conveyance of fact over creative flourish in making The Challenger. There are, however, some impressive (but repetitive) shots of the space shuttle’s numerous damaged components arrayed on a hangar floor. The greatest successes, though, are the subtle handling of the complexities involved in practising ethical science, and the careful implied critique, rather than outright condemnation, of NASA’s practices. Hurt’s Feynman may not be particularly friendly, but he is unflinching in his pursuit of the truth, and certainly emerges in this portrayal as the most morally upright member of the commission.
Although The Challenger is an informative and thought-provoking picture, it picks up the story part way through. Dramatic adaptation of the events prior to the shuttle launch, the negotiations between NASA and Morton Thiokol eventually uncovered by Feynman, would also make for engaging viewing and stimulate further ethical debate.
The Challenger is available on iPlayer until Monday 24 March.