A shared Discovery/Science Channel telecast, “The Challenger Disaster” approaches the 27-year-old tragedy like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, with William Hurt cast as the eccentric physicist who put the pieces together. Daring to focus on the painstaking aspects of scientific inquiry, the movie approaches the story with enough time having passed to feel fresh, emerging as a small but engaging international production – one that feels pretty timeless in its look at cover-your-ass bureaucracy – helped by first-class casting that in addition to Hurt includes Bruce Greenwood and Brian Dennehy.
Hurt plays Dr. Richard Feynman, a brilliant California physicist, avowed atheist and cancer patient who, in the wake of the Challenger explosion (tastefully dealt with via video in the first five minutes), is enlisted by a former student to join the presidential commission assembled to find out what happened.
Reluctant at first, once there Feynman becomes the proverbial bull in a china shop, approaching wary NASA employees and chafing against the commission’s seeming lack of urgency. That’s largely because the other appointees – and chairman William Rogers (Dennehy, in a mini “Gorky Park” reunion) – all hail from agencies that one way or another have a vested stake in the space program or the status quo.
Feynman is told all this by an Air Force general, Donald Kutyna (Greenwood), who quietly encourages him to aggressively press onward as the panel’s only independent voice, and thus the best hope of a resolution.
Looking a bit like a mad scientist with his wild mop of hair, Hurt portrays Feynman (and the project is in part based on his book) as someone determined to get to the bottom of these “appalling deaths,” becoming a junior sleuth as he zeroes in on the flaw in the O-rings. All that’s despite Feynman’s failing health and utter lack of diplomacy.
Written by Kate Gartside and directed by James Hawes, the movie is devoid of fabricated fireworks, but its apparent commitment to authenticity is driven home by a closing sequence showing the real-life Feynman questioning a witness, almost uncannily resembling its duplication by Hurt a few moments earlier. (One might ask why this quintessentially American story was shot in South Africa, but producers pursue tax credits even more doggedly than Feynman sought the truth.)
Ultimately, at a time when the cinematic designation “true story” frequently requires a litany of mealy-mouthed disclaimers, that level of fidelity alone would make “Challenger Disaster” a trip worth taking.