- Movie Rating -

Challenger: The Final Flight (2020)

| September 16, 2020

A great number of reviews that I have read regarding Netflix’s four-part documentary Challenger: Final Flight are quick to criticize it for being just another talking-head historical recounting of familiar events without much new insight.  Personally, I don’t mind the approach if I’m invested in the material, and when it comes to a story as polarizing as the Challenger disaster it is hard not to be.  This was a key world event in my lifetime.  I was 14 at the time, and in Junior High School, and I what I remember most was the change in mood in the country.  What had been a rebuilding of national pride since the introduction of The Space Shuttle four years earlier had now turned to an almost unbearable sense of national grief.

The great value of Challenger: The Final Flight is that directors Stephen Leckert and Daniel Junge want to introduce this story in full disclosure to those who weren’t alive then and to reveal a narrative retelling of the events for those who were.

Rebuilding the events through old news footage and interviews with family members, scientists, technicians and former NASA personnel, what we get is the story of nationals pride run amok, which leads to hubris, impatience and ultimately tragedy and death.  In a lot of ways, the story of the Challenger is a reminder of the same hubris that sank Titanic.  Both were marvels of engineering, symbols of national pride and put under the supervision of men willing to overlook the most basic of safety precautions in order to get things moving.

What I expected from this series was a recounting of events in gory detail, but Leckert and Junge are much more aware of the material that they are working with.  Their documentary (also executive produced by J.J. Abrams) opens with a curious scene on January 28, 1986, as a teacher pulls a television set into a classroom so that her students could watch the launch.  We segue into introductions of the astronauts: Christa McAuliffe, Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, and Greg Jarvis.

What is interesting is that while we see the zeal of the students and the despair and confusion of the tragedy, the actual explosion is withheld until the end of the third episode.  That’s a smart move because when it comes, it has a greater impact because we have seen all of the build-up, planning, promotion, delays, technical problems that led up to the tragedy.  So the, when we finally see it, the impact is far more devastating.

The very fact that Christa McAuliffe was a teacher and that most of us kids were pulled into classrooms to watch a teacher become the first civilian in space had a special resonance for those of us.  In a sense, it became our Kennedy Assassination.  It became our Pearl Harbor.  It was a touchstone moment in our lives and was a reminder of what a scary and unpredictable place the world could be.  We seemed to see the world much clearer after that point, and with the tragedy a certain nativity and innocence died away.

Of course, this is an emotional experience.  We see the family members still haunted by the deaths of their loved ones as the try bravely to recount them in personal detail.  We see the aftermath of the tragedy as they and the country and those at NASA try and make some sense out of what happened.  But the series never becomes overbearingly maudlin.  Yes, there is sadness but we don’t linger on those moments so long that it becomes uncomfortable.  Nor is there an effort to deify the astronauts as fallen angels.  They were ordinary people, diverse people (including two women, a black man and an Asian man) who came from different backgrounds and if the point of the mission was to prove that space travel could be possible for anyone, then they were the perfect symbols of that.

Away from the personal toll, the series does a very good job of interweaving the story of the construction of the booster rockets and how, from the very start, it was doomed to fail.  Near the end of the first episode, Leslie Serna, the daughter of engineer Bob Ebeling who was working for Morton Thiokol, a Utah company that built the booster rockets for NASA vehemently predicted that the rockets would fail.  What is chilling is that this is later recalled in Episode Three during a conference call between executives at Morton Thiokol and official at NASA in which every single engineer warns that the rocket booster’s O-rings would fail due to the extreme cold that had blown into Florida in late January.  But the wringing hands are overruled by the suits at NASA who have twice been forced to reschedule the launch.  The aftermath, in which many of these men are being interviewed for this documentary reveals sadness, bitterness and long-held regrets over their decision.

While Challenger: Final Flight grapples with the events for all of their heartbreak and tragedy, underneath lies the spirit that pushes us forward.  To this day, after more than half a century, we still hold our exploration of space as our greatest achievement, of our symbol of national pride and of progress.  The Challenger tragedy reminds us of the dangers inherent in pushing the envelope and the fragility of life as we try and move forward.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized