The Challenger Review – BBC 2

The Challenger - BBC - William HurtNobel Laureate Richard Feynman is something of a science superstar, someone who crossed over into popular culture. A proto-Brian Cox if you will, but smarter, and with better awards. His investigation of the Challenger disaster was widely praised, and this TV film from the BBC does a decent job of exploring that period of the man’s life, and giving a hint of his personality.

The Challenger (BBC 2) takes place in 1986, with Feynman recruited onto a commission to investigate the explosion of the Challenger shuttle on take-off, later helping to reveal the cause of the disaster. William Hurt does a good job of portraying a funny and informal man, amongst a group of stern managers and insiders appointed to the panel with the aim of protecting NASA’s reputation. It’s an old trope – the wildcard bucking the system, fighting the bureaucracy – but in this case it happens to be true.

The film moved at a slow pace, as Feynman dug his way into the disaster in his unorthodox way, but became almost a conspiracy thriller about three quarters of the way through, as the scientist faced opposition from NASA, and discovered the big business and money vested in the commission’s outcome.

The conspiracy element was a little forced, and perhaps suggests a writer lacking complete confidence in the excitement of the source material. At one point, Feynman was handed a cryptic note about ‘Ivory Soap,’ and later in the film he realises it’s a reference to the failure rate of shuttle launches. Now, this seemed far-fetched, someone leaving such a cryptic note, and sure enough, a Google search confirms it as fabrication. Or artistic licence, if you’re being kind.

I have no problem with invention in historical dramas (okay, I have some problems), but if such invention seems fake then it jars, and shouldn’t be included. There are four separate moments in this film were Feynman has a ‘lightbulb’ moment: ‘Wait…that’s it!’ I’d be surprised if these all really happened. Do they ever really happen? There’s also a scene were Feynman is whisked to the Pentagon for a super-secret, er, PowerPoint presentation.

Still, the film does a great job of exposing the nature of cover-ups, and the dangerous culture that was in place in NASA at the time. Feynman at one point finds structural flaws in the shuttle engine blades, only for the commission’s head to dismiss his revelation, as the evidence suggests that the engine wasn’t to blame for the explosion. Feynman is wrong, but he’s actually right. The engines – the cracked blades – didn’t fail this time, but that doesn’t mean they won’t next time. The real failure was in the culture at NASA. The film does a good job of portraying this.

It also makes good points about cover-ups. There isn’t always some evil bad guy. Sometimes there isn’t any malice at all. It might just be, as the film shows, people trying to protect an organisation they care about.

The Challenger was well made and informative. Feynman was portrayed as a man who is not afraid of burning bridges – which is always an enjoyable character type – and we get to see a little of his struggles against cancer, and his motivations, rooted in his guilt over his work on the A-bomb. Hurt did well in his portrayal, and the film as a whole is an enjoyable enough study of a person who is deserving of the attention.

Random notes:

  • The scientist makes a dead of night call from a public phone to discuss the conspiracy. It’s a pity we rarely have such cinematic scenes in movies anymore, thanks to mobile phones. If I ever unravel a conspiracy, I’m gonna use loads of public phones.
  • Feynman was portrayed as a little egotistical, a little arrogant. I don’t know if that’s a true depiction, but perhaps it takes such a person to stand up to cover-ups and to challenge authority.
  • ‘It was a good use of science,’ Feynman says of his investigation. ‘I guess there is a sort of afterlife; the few bits and pieces we do might get remembered.’ A nice line, and probably – hopefully – true.

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