Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Screenplay Review - Challenger

Genre: Historical (1986)
Premise: An unorthodox scientist is brought in to investigate why the 1986 shuttle, Challenger, exploded after take-off.
About: The writer of today's script, Nicole Perlman, is writing Marvel's "Guardians Of The Galaxy" script.  Perlman is making Variety look good as she was listed a couple of year's ago on their "Ten Writers To Watch" list.  I believe Perlman wrote Challenger while still in college.  The script finished on 2005's inaugural Black List. There have since been two drafts (in 2008 and 2012) which I couldn't get my hands on.  I hear they address some of the questions I bring up in today's review though. :)
Writer: Nicole Perlman
Details: 114 pages (March 20, 2005 draft)

On any other week, Challenger would probably be getting a more adoring write-up.  Unfortunately, it's coming on the heels of recent Top 25'er, The Ends Of The Earth.  Maybe if the lead character was having sex with his grandmother, it might've had a better chance.  But it turns out this is just your basic straightforward investigation flick.

Okay, maybe not that straightforward.  The lead is 69 years old.  And he's dying of 2 very rare forms of cancer.  And he was directly involved in The Manhattan Project.  Some would even say he was the guy who gave birth to the atom bomb.  So I guess Challenger wasn't that basic at all.  But was it good?  That's all that matters, right?

The aforementioned Dr. Richard Feynman is a physics professor at Caltech.  Feynman is very much a scientist.  He hasn't combed his hair in 20 years.  And the things that get him giggly aren't Seinfeld re-runs, but rather mathematical equations that would stump even Will Hunting.

What makes Feynman different, though, is that he's fun and easygoing.  He likes cracking jokes, never taking anything too seriously, and flirting with girls a third his age.  Even though there's a cancer eating away at his stomach that will soon end his life, the man seems pretty upbeat.

That upbeat life is going swimmingly until, like the rest of the nation, he watches the Challenger space shuttle explode on TV.  It was a big deal at the time because nothing bad had ever happened with the space shuttle.  It was seen, in many ways, as flawless.  But flawless space vehicles don't go kaboom on their way up to space, do they?

An independent committee is immediately put together to find out what went wrong.  But the deck is stacked.  Everyone on the committee has close ties to NASA.  Most of their jobs depend on them.  So are they really going to blame the organization if they find out they did something wrong?

They have to look at least SOMEWHAT impartial. So they bring Feynman in.  At first Feynman doesn't want to be involved (refusal of the call!), but when whispers surface that there may be a cover-up, he's all in.  You see, Feynman's life up to that point had been defined by his involvement with the atom bomb.  He's indirectly linked to a lot of deaths.  He believes that if he can find out what went wrong here, maybe he can change that legacy.  Maybe he can be remembered for saving lives instead of ending them.

As cute and cuddly a story as that is, the NASA brass could give two shits.  They have an institution to protect.  And they're not going to let some renegade scientist come in and embarrass them.  At the top of that list is former Secretary of State William P. Rogers. Rogers sees Feynman as the enemy, the one person who could screw this up.  And he's all over him from day one.

While the rest of the committee plays along with NASA's farce of an investigation, Feynman breaks rules wherever he goes.  For example, the rocket technicians have mysteriously all gone on vacation the day Feynman's supposed to interview them.  No problem.  He finds them and interviews them anyway.  Or when the committee is inexplicably not allowed to look at the wreckage, he pretends to be one of the seniors on a Kennedy Space Center tour to get his hands on the shuttle.

The investigation eventually leads him to something called an "O-ring," which is supposed to keep the rocket fuel from leaking.  However, it looks like the rings were faulty, that fuel DID leak, and that's what caused the crash.  The question is, why did it happen?  And why wasn't it prevented?  What Feynman will find is that a lot of people inside NASA knew about the faulty O-rings but went ahead with the launch anyway.  Now it's a matter of naming those people, even if puts America's entire space program in jeopardy.

Scriptshadow pick for Feynman

Initial thoughts on this one?  A good script!  Especially if it was, indeed, written by someone in college.  Whenever you have scripts like this one, you gotta have a great lead character - since the lead character is everything.  A dying unorthodox sex-obsessed Manhattan-Project vet scientist?  I'd say that's a pretty darn interesting character.

The mystery itself is pretty interesting as well.  There's something about big powerful entities that are guilty of something trying to protect themselves that audiences love to watch.  We want to see that entity go down. It's why we were so obsessed with Watergate, with Penn State, with Maddof.  We want people who think they're above the law to be held accountable!  Throw a likable underdog in there as the one who's trying to expose them, and it's hard to fuck that story up.

But therein lies the one major issue with Challenger.  I'm not sure there's a big enough conspiracy here.  I mean there was a conspiracy, but it was kind of tame.  There was pressure for NASA to launch the shuttle.  A bunch of engineers said it was too cold.  NASA ignored them and launched anyway.  The o-rings busted as a result and the shuttle exploded.

I don't know.  I guess that's bad.  But it lacks the true nefarious evil decision that makes a conspiracy pop.  I mean I still don't know who made the ultimate decision to launch the shuttle.  It's just "NASA."  Even our villain in the movie, Rogers, had nothing to do with it.  So in the end, I'm left wondering who I'm supposed to hate.  Who I'm supposed to be happy went down.  It'd be like writing The Shawshank Redemption without the warden character.  At the end, the police decide there was a problem with "the prison" in general.  How satisfying would that have been?

Not only that, but Challenger's ending kind of...sorry but I have to do it...disintegrates.  After Feynman threatens to expose his findings to the media, Rogers convinces him that if he does, the president won't find out what really happened. So he says if he keeps quiet, he'll attach Feynman's findings in a brief to the president.  Feynman then agrees to this!

Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute.  First, if Feynman exposes his findings to the media, and every newspaper in the country prints them...THE PRESIDENT WON'T FIND OUT???  That makes no sense whatsoever.  But what really chapped my ass was that, Feynman, who we've established as an untrusting loner who does things his own way, agrees to this!!!


This was a huge fault in the script (you never want your characters acting out of character - especially during crucial plot points) and when Rogers, of course, rewrote Feynman's findings to make NASA look good, I was on Rogers side.  I thought, "Good.  If you were stupid enough to agree to that, you deserve to get screwed."  Not exactly the feeling you want your reader to have during the climax of the story.

So I think that ending needs to be cleaned up if this movie's ever to be made.  BUT, having said that, I do think there's something here.  The main character is a great one (until the late moment).  The story is naturally dramatic with tons of conflict.  And if we can establish a BIG VILLAIN who we get to see go down, the ending will live up to everything the rest of the story sets up.  So with that said, I think this is worth reading.

[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn't for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned:  This script is a great reminder of the power of obstacles.  When you set your hero off to achieve his goal, you want to put as many obstacles in front of him as possible.  Those obstacles create conflict, which in turn creates drama, which in turn creates entertainment.  NASA engineers refuse to talk to Feynman.  The rest of the committee refuses to help Feynman.  Feynman's not allowed to look at the wreckage.  Rogers is constantly trying to kick him off the investigation.  His findings are stolen from his hotel.  That's the great thing about setting up a big clear goal, is that you get to throw a ton of obstacles in your hero's way.