Looking Back At CHALLENGER (1990 TV Movie) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At CHALLENGER (1990 TV Movie)

Matthew Kresal returns to that fateful day.
On a bright but cold Florida morning in late January 1986, millions of TV viewers and thousands of spectators watched what they thought would be the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Many of whom had tuned in due to the hype around New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe being a part of the crew. It was to end in tragedy less than ninety seconds after launch, leaving behind a shocked nation. It was perhaps inevitable that filmmakers would see dramatic potential in the Challenger story, and 1990 saw the ABC network air the first such effort.

In many ways, Challenger falls into the late eighties/early nineties TV movie category. Based on a real-life event, it wants to humanize those people who featured so prominently in headlines while also trying to tell a contained story dramatically. The difference here, perhaps, is that as well as telling the story of seven astronauts (or, if we're honest, Christa McAuliffe mainly), you also have the technical side of the Space Shuttle program to deal with involving engineers and NASA management. Challenger the TV movie would aim to present both, using one to give context to the other. So did it work?

Yes and no.
There are things the movie does well. Karen Allen's casting as Christa McAuliffe was an inspired choice, and having seen archive footage of the real McAuliffe, thanks to Netflix's documentary series, she captures her nicely. Without a doubt, of the seven Challenger crew members, she's the one who comes across the best with George Englund's script, though the casting for all seven was good with Barry Bostwick in particular as Commander Dick Scobee. The cast is pretty solid all told, including Peter Boyle as Morton Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly and Lane Smith as NASA's Larry Mulloy, men who ended up on opposite ends of the decision to launch that day. There's a strong sense of location thanks to filming around Houston and surprisingly well-suited use of NASA archive footage to portray everything from T-38s in flight to the preparations for the Shuttle's launch. For something made on a TV movie budget, it doesn't look half-bad.

That's only the better side of the movie, though. Because Challenger, as a product of the made for TV docudrama genre, runs foul of many problems with it. Namely, it's melodramatic as it can be. For a story with as much dramatic potential as the Challenger one has, neither George Englund's script nor Glenn Jordan's direction seems to find much drama to present. Even the late-night decision to launch (made in what was a fraught teleconference) gets shown in the blandest of terms dramatically. The effort Englund and Jordan make to humanize the astronauts often comes across less like real-life and as corny to the point of laughable. And that's whether it's Scoby and wife dancing in their living room to the song Wind Beneath My Wings to Janelle Onizuka yelling at her astronaut husband for coming home late. The latter, in particular, doesn't seem realistic for Onizuka, and while allowing for a degree of dramatic license, could even come across as borderline insulting. All of those issues are a reminder of the truth in the old saying about finding universality in storytelling. That, while you can help anyone identify with anyone, universality also leads to cafeteria food. And Challenger, for all of its humanizing and dramatic intentions, ends up closer to cafeteria food than real-life.
In the end, perhaps that summarizes Challenger's biggest problem. It wants to be respectful to the memories of those seven astronauts while also laying out the course of went wrong to cause their lives to be lost. Yet, perhaps because of its making being in relatively close proximity to the events, it comes off somewhere between bland and disingenuous. All of which might explain the corny final scene with each member of the crew, in voiceover, reading out a line from a poem before the music swells, and the Shuttle heads into the clear blue sky.

Challenger then isn't a terrible movie, but neither is it a great one. The events of that day are still crying out for a fine piece of dramatic filmmaking. What's clear, after seeing this, is that this wasn't to be it.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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