The climactic scene of The Challenger Disaster is a three-way conference call. Over 15 minutes of screen time, the contractors who built the space shuttle Challenger’s solid rocket boosters attempt to convince NASA officials that the cold temperatures in the forecast for the scheduled morning of the launch will affect the rubber that holds the rocket together at the joints.
In the heat of a back-and-forth speakerphone debate between three groups of men in dress shirts huddled around their respective conference tables, an engineer finally lays it all out to NASA’s key decision-maker: “If we lose the seal for a tenth of a second, the hot-firing gases could blow by the seal and erode the O-ring, which we have seen happen. And if the secondary backup O-ring does the same thing and is compromised? That’s the ballgame.”
That last line is the movie’s lone wink at the fact that the engineer is talking to Les Miles. The eminently quotable coach, who became one of college football’s most treasured characters with his don’t-tell-me-the-odds game management and sideline idiosyncracies while at LSU, plays Nelson, the NASA official who ultimately sets in motion (and later wears the blame for) the biggest catastrophe to that point in the history of the U.S. space program. The Challenger Disaster is playing at a very limited number of theaters nationwide, but it’s also available on Apple and Amazon for those looking to watch Kansas’s football coach demand conclusive data about the sealing properties of rubber joints without leaving the comfort of their homes.
Silver-screen novice that he may be, Miles is the best part of the movie, the only person who appears to be right at home in the choppy dialogue and confusingly timed shouting matches the script throws its characters into. The full-length film is just as straightforward as its trailer makes it out to be:
You probably had heard that Miles is an actor. Or at least he was until late this fall, when he got a callback from old friend and new Kansas AD Jeff Long to replace David Beaty as the Jayhawks’ head coach. In the 26 months between his firing at LSU and his hiring at Kansas, Miles spent his time auditioning for films and appearing in a Dos Equis ad campaign that was impossible to avoid during the 2018 college football season. When it seemed like his last chance at a big-time coaching gig had come and gone, we appeared to have years of cameos and bit parts ahead to keep The Mad Hatter on our screens.
“I don’t know that anybody ever doesn’t dream at one point in time, ‘I’m going to be in a movie,’ ” Miles told SI’s Ross Dellenger (who first reported on Miles’s encounter with the acting bug for The Advocate) last March. “I don’t know how you don’t think that way. As a child, I wanted to be the president of the United States, wanted to be a head football coach and wanted to be an actor in a movie. We only get one go-around at this thing called life. There’s no do-overs.”
It stands to reason that his uphill battle leading Kansas out of the Big 12 basement will pull Miles away from any more parts in the near future, but his two pivotal scenes within The Challenger Disaster (his first appearance comes about 48 minutes in, if you don’t want to spend an hour and a half on a straight-to-iTunes movie) should hold up as evidence of his best-case role: an authority figure trying in vain to control an uncertain situation.
When Miles’s budding acting career first became public knowledge last year, The Challenger Disaster was being produced under the name Angry Men, and the scrapped title more accurately depicts the film’s subject matter: Adam, the hot-headed engineer (played by Eric Hanson) racing against the clock to convince everyone of the dangers of proceeding with the launch, proves incapable of getting his point across without either venting a personal grievance, slamming a table or storming out of the room. In this environment, Miles distinguishes himself as the only actor who has had to yell at someone in a professional context before. He may not be able to stretch his range of emotions as naturally as he could in his LSU heyday, but as ever, he doesn’t need much runway to heat up. Try as he might, he cannot convince me that anyone in human history has ever shouted “Quantify your results!” in the natural flow of a discussion.
Explaining himself before a presidential commission toward the end of the movie (Is a Spoiler Warning necessary for a movie about the Challenger?), Miles fields questions in much the same way that he works a postgame press conference following a loss, wavering between deep conviction and barely concealed uncertainty that he will walk away from the podium exonerated of blame. From the hand motions to the mid-sentence trail-offs, his final scene feels like a premonition of the role he may have to play more than a few times this fall.
The Challenger Disaster won’t be mistaken for Apollo 13 in terms of cinematic value, but its most famous actor makes the best of what he’s given, which is all Jayhawks fans can ask for at this point.