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Challenger

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How’s this for show-biz insensitivity? George Englund Jr., the executive producer of this three-hour television movie about the Challenger disaster, said recently that the families of the astronauts killed in the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle ”showed no inclination to want to have a film made” about the still-painful subject.

Englund admits this, yet he went ahead and trampled on the lives of these people anyway.

How appropriate, therefore, that this television movie is as bad as it is.

In Challenger, tragedy has been turned into melodrama. The TV movie spends much of its time showing us how the seven astronauts prepared for their doomed flight: their initial selection, their arduous training sessions, their family lives, their hopes and worries.

This material is contrasted with behind-the-scenes stuff focusing on Morton Thiokol engineer Roger Boisjoly, who questioned whether the worn rubber O rings inside the rocket boosters could withstand the lift-off under cold conditions. Boisjoly is played by Peter Boyle as a regular Joe fighting a big, smug, do-no-wrong system.

Challenger switches back and forth between the cheerful, innocent astronaut team and Boisjoly’s heroic but failed attempt to get the space agency to delay the mission. In this way, a complicated story has been turned into a superficial, predictable tale.

Knowing all too well how sensitive this subject is, Englund and his minions took great care to portray every one of the astronauts as a pure saint, thus removing any possibility of interest in these people as figures in a drama.

Karen Allen as schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe smiles constantly to show us how ”up” she is; Barry Bostwick as spacecraft commander Dick Scobie growls tough-guy stuff like ”Sometimes you just gotta fly with your gut.”

The wife of Captain Michael J. Smith is shown saying to her husband: ”Mike, I don’t know how you can be so terrific as an astronaut and then come home and be so wonderful as a husband and a father.”

Even if this statement was actually made in real life, it just doesn’t work as dialogue, and all of Challenger is filled with similarly stiff, self-consciously noble sentiments. Who wrote the script? George Englund Jr.

Peter Boyle turns in the one subtle, modulated performance, and Bostwick is charming despite his lines.

But ultimately, Challenger doesn’t work on any level. To reduce the portrayal of NASA to a group of people debating the O rings is to make it seem as if they were on top of the problem from the start, which is whitewashing things considerably.

And to reduce Christa McAuliffe to a perpetually perky smile and her colleagues to a gaggle of happy space-campers is an insult to their memories.

A shameless idea, shamefully executed. D-

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