23 November 2013 | classicalsteve
Finely Crafted Film About How Science and Facts Clash with Insider Politics Through the Eyes of Physics Genius Richard Feynman
In 1986, the United States experienced possibly the worst space flight disaster in NASA's history up until that time. (The fire which occurred during the testing of Apollo 1 in 1967 was probably the worst before Challenger.) With a disaster of this magnitude, then President Reagan formed a board of inquiry to determine the cause of the Challenger's untimely explosion which occurred less than 1.5 minutes into its launch. Most of the members of the commission were government, military, and NASA insiders such as astronauts Neil Armonstrong and Sally Ride, Air Force General Donald Kutyna, and William P. Rogers, former cabinet member of presidents and adviser to President Reagan. However, one board member was not only NOT an insider but a Nobel Laureate in Physics: Dr Richard Feynman. The present film chronicles the investigation through the eyes of Feynman, played convincingly by William Hurt, regarded as a bit of a maverick who did not understand the magnitude of consequences if the full and possibly ugly truth were ever laid bare before public scrutiny.
At the time of the disaster, Feynman was teaching physics at the California Institute of Technology. One of his former students, a NASA insider, recommends the professor become involved with the commission. From the first, Feynman clashes with the Director of the commission Rogers (Brian Dennehy), who is at first more worried about NASA's reputation than finding the cause of the Challenger disaster. Feynman begins a bit of rogue investigative work which frustrates other members of the commission, who are worried that reputations and business contracts could be be jeopardized by the findings.
Feynman then befriends General Donald Kutyna (Bruce Greenwood), who turns out to be an invaluable ally in the investigation. Kutyna explains to Feynman that the politics surrounding such an investigation often becomes messy, even ugly. People try to veil the truth, often with lots of scientific jargon, fearing that reputations, positions, and even careers might be compromised if unflattering facts come into the spotlight. At the same time, since Feynman is an outsider, he is much more free to ascertain the truth than other members. Then the physics professor receives a strange message which says "it's just ivory soap". Late in the film, Feynman makes a fascinating presentation of his findings to the other commission members. After the credits, video footage of the real Feynman making the identical presentation is shown as a kind of epilogue or coda.
A compelling and thoroughly entertaining insiders' look into a commission of inquiry appointed by the US Government. While the need to find the truth is what the public expects, they don't often see the political shenanigans which often occur when such an investigation embarks on its task. The Warren Commission, the mishandled board of inquiry formed to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, made decisions which were above and beyond the goal of finding the truth, such as shielding crucial pieces of evidence from other board members for fear that such exposure would embarrass and/or infuriate the Kennedy family. (The Warren Commission's failures would fuel conspiracy theories for decades.) The Challenger Commission (or Rogers Commission) could have fallen into the same trap. However, because of the integrity of several of the members of the board, the truth of the Challenger disaster was finally revealed. And as a result, NASA made far-reaching improvements in its shuttle technology. Sadly, the Shuttle Disaster Commission was Feynman's last undertaking which received national attention. Feynman would die of cancer in 1988 at the age of 69.