The space shuttle Challenger took off in January 1986, on a day with a sky as blue as the one that blazed 15 years later during the attacks on 9/11. It exploded, traumatizing a nation — especially children watching live as Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old teacher from New Hampshire, died alongside six astronauts.
Fueled in part by interviews with NASA longtimers and some of the astronauts’ widows, plus generous footage from the time, Netflix’s Challenger: The Final Flight (four episodes) is an engrossing examination of the mistakes and acts of hubris that led to the disaster. “This wasn’t an accident at all,” one interviewee says. “This was more like manslaughter.”
The fault lay with the O-rings on the solid rocket boosters, simple, large hoops of rubber holding the volatile shuttle thrusters together at the joints. On nearly every mission, problems with the O-rings’ performance were reported. It wasn’t a secret. Neither was the fact that those rubber hoops became brittle in cold weather . . . and the morning of the January launch was record-breakingly cold in Florida. Despite those facts, the mission was green-lit, largely for PR and financial reasons. NASA was trying to increase the number of shuttle flights and gin up citizen interest in the space program.
Well-made and swiftly paced, Challenger is an easy doc on which to binge. It leaves you with a sense of melancholy when you learn of future plans — kids in orbit, easy citizen access to space — that never came to fruition following that beautiful/terrible morning.
NETFLIX | Away
Focused on outer space in fictional form, Away (Netflix, 10 episodes) posits a near future and the first manned mission to Mars. It sounds a lot more exciting than it is (I tuned out halfway through). Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, under challenged in a milquetoast role, plays the commander of a three-year mission in the company of an international team (Russian, Chinese, African and Indian). Half the crew respects her, half does not. This provides some by-the-books dramatic tension as they face crises (a malfunctioning solar panel, a deadly virus). But half the show is grounded on Earth, where the commander’s husband (Josh Charles) is recovering from a stroke and her teen daughter (Talitha Eliana Bateman) is trying to support Dad and deal with typical high-school drama. The domestic plot line is very tired, and Away feels more like a risk-averse network drama than the edgier kind of programming for which Netflix can be known. It’s a middle-of-the-road drama with great special effects, but it never escapes the bonds of gravity created by square storytelling.
NETFLIX | Ratched
Since this is Netflix, it must be time for the latest shiny product from the Ryan Murphy assembly line. Sure enough, we have Ratched (eight episodes), which gives us a backstory no one wanted about the icily efficient head nurse from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Oscar winner Louise Fletcher in the 1975 movie). Here, the younger Mildred Ratched is played by Murphy favorite Sarah Paulson, saddled with evil motivations tied to a spree killer of priests (Finn Wittrock), who’s being held in the mental hospital where she’s hired under false pretenses.
As usual, it’s not a Murphy series without elaborate shocks and murders and fluid sexuality designed to titillate and ignore any sort of psychological consistency among its characters. The show pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s camerawork and lighting design, and lifts much of its soundtrack from Hitch’s great collaborator Bernard Herrmann. Ratched wants to fabricate a sense of class by proxy.
A central problem is that the original Nurse Ratched was not a villain because she had a monstrous backstory and gory secrets in her past. She was awful because she was a high-level functionary in the day-to-day, dehumanizing bureaucracy of the mental-health industry at the time. She was doing her job. Don’t expect that sort of subtlety here, not when the characters can wield ice picks and perform lobotomies at random.
Always watchable, Paulson is embedded like a sharp-cheeked jewel in the fetishistic, saturated art design (over design, really). She’s surrounded by a great, camping-it-up cast, including Judy Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Corey Stoll, Amanda Plummer and, in the role Jessica Lange would have played in previous Murphy series, Sharon Stone, wearing a platinum wig.
AMAZON PRIME | All In: The Fight for Democracy
The documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy is a mix of history, civics lesson and a bio of Stacey Abrams, who has been focusing her attention on voter suppression (particularly in Georgia, following her 2018 governor’s race loss). Codirected by Liz Garbus (I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and What Happened, Miss Simone?), the film is earnest, disturbing and occasionally a little too much like a healthy, boring helping of vegetables. Still, it couldn’t be timelier.
NETFLIX | American Murder: The Family Next Door
American Murder: The Family Next Door, another worthwhile documentary, tells the story of the 2018 disappearance of Colorado mother Shanann Watts and her two young daughters, and the unfolding facts in the days afterward, as friends, family and police focus on the actions and alibi of Watts’ husband. It’s a heartbreaking tale, particularly since it’s told in an unusual form: All the content comes from home movies, social media posts, phone calls and interrogation room videos.
AMAZON PRIME | The Boys
The Boys (eight episodes) is back for another run. If anything, it’s nastier, funnier and more violent than in its first season. I haven’t seen every episode, though, because Amazon is giving the show a staggered release, with new episodes dropping on Fridays through October 9. You definitely need to watch Season 1 first, or you’ll be lost. Jack Quaid plays Hughie, a young man seeking revenge against a team of corporate-backed, chemically engineered superheroes called The Seven. With him is a bunch of hardened misfits (the title’s boys, plus one woman) led by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban). Their main nemesis is Homelander (Antony Starr, terrific), a smiling, blond, fascist psychopath with a hair-trigger temper and the ability to melt skulls with a flash of his death-ray eyes. Working undercover in the Boys’ corner is Seven newcomer Annie (Erin Moriarty), aka Starlight, a sweet, Christian good-girl who’s learned the hard way that her lifelong heroes are monsters at heart. Equally witty and rude, The Boys may be a bit hard-core for some viewers. For me, it’s a guilty treat.
AMAZON PRIME | Utopia
A new offering that conforms to Amazon’s particular Boys-style brand of extreme violence and snark is Utopia (eight episodes). Adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) from a British series that dates to 2013, it’s a tale of comic-book nerds who learn that the mythology encoded in the obscure graphic novel Dystopia may actually be coming true. Its cryptic, unpublished sequel, Utopia, is encoded with solutions to — in a spooky bit of timing — a deadly, flu-like virus that’s sweeping the nation.
Sasha Lane plays Jessica Hyde, a feral wild child who may be the key to it all, and who led a handful of nerds into a conspiracy that involves a cutting-edge lab owned by a billionaire (John Cusack). The lab employs a scientist (Rainn Wilson), who’s either the best hope for conquering the plague or is being manipulated by higher forces into making things worse. Fans of the British original have been indifferent to withering about the remake. I thought it was . . . OK. But it constantly undercuts itself with a very high body count and a glib approach to mass murder. Approach with caution.
NETFLIX | Enola Holmes
Three stand-alone films from Netflix could not be more different from each other, but each is worth checking out. Of local interest is Enola Holmes, primarily because its lead is Millie Bobby Brown of the Atlanta-shot Stranger Things. Here she gets to use her native British accent as Enola, the 16-year-old kid sister of Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill, an improbably hunky version of the detective) and fussy brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin), and the daughter of their free-spirited mum (Helena Bonham Carter). Mum’s sudden disappearance sets the plot in motion, and Enola — as trained at reading clues and defending herself as Sherlock — goes on the road to London to find her.
En route she meets a teenage viscount her own age (Louis Partridge), who sets her heart aflutter — even more so when she realizes he’s being tracked by an assassin. This gives her a second mystery to solve. Brown narrates Enola’s adventure with delightful asides to the camera and carries the film beautifully. Spryly made by Harry Bradbeer, director of Fleabag (a show that contained much racier direct addresses to the camera), the show is aimed at kids but is savvy and sly enough for adults. It’s a ripping romp of female empowerment, Edwardian-style.
NETFLIX | Cuties
Young girls, age 11 to be precise, are the protagonists tin he French drama Cuties, the title that caused alarmists to create the hashtag #CancelNetflix. As often happens in cases like this, it’s pretty clear that these complaints are about a film that the protesters have not watched. The outcry came after Netflix ran the trailer, which is about young girls competing in a local dance company. Their twerking and booty-popping moves were deemed by the some to be virtual kiddy porn. That misread the very point of the movie, a sensitive exploration of inappropriate cultural sexualization imposed at too early an age on kids. It’s the exact opposite of a celebration of that.
In female writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré’s drama, Fathia Youssouf plays Amy, a recent arrival in town, along with her strict Sengalese mother and kid brother. Dad’s still in Senegal and plans to take a second wife. This is the strict, submissive culture that Amy faces, so it’s no surprise that she’s attracted to four new classmates, girls who in their spare time practice for their dance group, called Cuties. Will pervs get off on watching their moves? Yes, that’s what pervs do, and they can find material anywhere. Cuties is serious and raises useful questions. If it makes you uncomfortable, it’s supposed to.
NETFLIX | Under the Shadow
Although it’s 4 years old, Babak Anvari’s chiller Under the Shadow is just the sort of scary movie I like to watch as Halloween approaches. In 1980s Tehran, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is the mother of a small daughter and the wife of a doctor — the profession she hoped to pursue until her studies were denied by the men in charge of the medical school. (Like Cuties, Shadow is a commentary on female repression in a conservative society.) The city is under constant threat of bombing from Iraq, and when her husband is assigned to an army outpost, Shideh stays rather than fleeing to the countryside. When a rocket smashes through the apartment building roof but doesn’t detonate, it brings with it a djinn, an evil spirit fond of possessing humans (not to be confused with Robin Williams’ friendly blue genie in Aladdin). Under the Shadow is a skillful slow burn of a movie, intermixing quiet, suggestively stacked details with an increasing number of unsettling shocks. Keep it in mind if you think your life these days could use a few more scares.
NETFLIX | Criminal: UK
Fans of procedurals may want to check out the new season of Criminal: UK (four episodes). As before, the premise is simple. A suspect is grilled in a Scotland Yard interrogation room for crimes ranging from rape to murder. What’s interesting is that you’re never sure whether the seemingly guilty suspect is, in fact, innocent. The series offers a chance to watch really good actors in distilled performances, including the great Sophie Okonedo, Sharon Horgan in a change of pace from her normal comic persona and, surprisingly, Kit Harington, whose Jon Snow was always the least interesting character in Game of Thrones. Definitely worth a look.
STILL PLAYING CATCHUP? Our September column looked at Immigration Nation, Indian Matchmaking and Love on the Spectrum on Netflix, and Amazon Prime’s Howard Ashman documentary, Howard, among others.
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