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Michelle Williams to Honor Christa McAuliffe’s Life in ‘The Challenger’

Get ready for heaps of tears. Williams will do what she does best and embody yet another tragic figure in history.
Michelle Williams All The Money In The World
TriStar Pictures
By  · Published on October 3rd, 2018

Michelle Williams is well-acquainted with playing tragic figures. Some of her most memorable roles have overwhelmed us all with a plethora of emotions. Oftentimes, these ventures have actually garnered her a fair bit of recognition from awards organizations. To date, Williams has been nominated for four Academy Awards, four BAFTAs, six Screen Actors Guild Awards, five Golden Globes, and five Independent Spirit Awards.

Yet, it would be awesome if she could finally win more than just one Golden Globe and Indie Spirit apiece. Thankfully, her leading lady slate is stacking up once again after her more light-hearted stints have been showcased on the big screen within the last year (namely with The Greatest Showman, I Feel Pretty, and Venom). It’s the ideal time to be on the lookout for more awards contenders.

A particularly gut-wrenching space shuttle tragedy can now be added to Williams’ list of upcoming feature film projects. As reported by Deadline, she will play ill-fated teacher Christa McAuliffe in The Challenger, which will be directed by Academy Award-nominated Danish filmmaker Martin Zandvliet (Land of Mine). Jayson Rothwell (Polar) will pen the screenplay for The Challenger, crafting a “biopic of sorts” that tracks the milestones of McAuliffe’s life.

McAuliffe, a New Hampshire high school teacher, was notably selected to be the inaugural candidate for NASA’s Teacher in Space Project (TISP), a program which aimed to bring civilian educators along on flight missions as Payload Specialists. McAuliffe was chosen from a pool of more than 11,000 teachers to board the Space Shuttle Challenger and was said to have stood out from the crowd as a result of her “infectious enthusiasm” over the opportunity.

McAuliffe had planned to conduct two live teaching sessions from space in order to detail a day in the life of an astronaut as well as elucidate the goals of space exploration. McAuliffe was reportedly especially passionate over the prospect of improving the state of education nationwide in the wake of her unique circumstances, saying:

“I’m hoping that this is going to elevate the teaching profession in the eyes of the public and of those potential teachers out there, and hopefully, maybe one of the secondary objectives of this is students are going to be looking at me and perhaps thinking of going into teaching as professions.”

The project was a catastrophe, though. Just 73 seconds into flight, the Challenger – carrying McAuliffe and six other passengers – broke apart. There were no survivors. Due to the proposed educational nature of the TISP, NASA arranged for the launch to be specifically broadcasted live on TV at US public schools. Schoolchildren thus witnessed the disaster in real time. A lack of due diligence in NASA’s decision-making processes was later determined as a contributing factor to the incident.

McAuliffe has since been commemorated in a variety of ways. Scholarships and events such as the annual Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference were established in her name. She was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004. In fact, The Challenger won’t even be the first movie to immortalize McAuliffe on screen. Back in 1990, a TV film titled Challenger starring Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark) portraying McAuliffe aired. It even won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Miniseries or a Special.

I’m already certain that Williams is the perfect choice to embody McAuliffe’s warmth and fervor. We here at FSR have said it in the past that Williams is definitely a chameleon of an actor. There isn’t a role of hers that’s particularly unbelievable, no matter how much scenery she’s chewing or what ridiculous premise she has to buy into (looking at you, Oz the Great and Powerful).

Although several years have passed since the release of Blue Valentine and My Week with Marilyn, I’m still mildly bitter that Williams’ performances didn’t garner her more accolades. We witness Williams at her rawest and realest in those films, whether she’s playing a desperate wife trying to get by in a dysfunctional relationship or one of the most iconic women in history.

Williams’ maladjusted coupling with Ryan Gosling is uncannily electric and deeply wounding in Blue Valentine. On the flip side, she unearths multitudes of emotion in her depiction of Marilyn Monroe, playing every facet of Monroe’s heartbreaking turmoil and her undeniable magnetism to utter perfection.

Williams has a perceptive talent for understated emotions, blending easily into the inconspicuous worlds of a Kelly Reichardt film like Certain Women. But she is also never out of place in emotionally bombastic productions such as Brokeback Mountain, Shutter Island, and Manchester By the Sea. Moreover, the latter three movies are led by men, but Williams holds her own so well that you’d wish for her to headline more projects.

The Challenger will most definitely deliver on that front, even if Williams continues to test our capacity for heartbreak. Revisiting McAuliffe’s tragedy in order to summarize it for this article was difficult all on its own, and I can only imagine how Williams will tug on heartstrings with her next tear-jerker. Her next awards campaign basically starts now.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)