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Is Hollywood coming to Concord for Christa?

  • Michelle Williams (left) will play Christa McAuliffe in an upcoming movie about the late astronaut’s life.



Monitor columnist
Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Kim Bleier, a social studies teacher at Concord High School, could have shouted, “Lights, camera, action,” Wednesday in her classroom.

That’s the classroom, the same classroom, that Christa McAuliffe once taught in. Can you think of a better stage for a movie about the teacher who died trying to expand education to new heights?

“Yes, it would be exciting if they came here, but the classes don’t look the same as they did in 1986,” Bleier noted with a subtle laugh.

Not much looks as it did 32 years ago, of course, but that’s not stopping Hollywood from moving forward with a movie based on the life of McAuliffe, who died in the Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986.

The scoop came Tuesday night from Deadline Hollywood, an online magazine focusing on entertainment news. The report said the movie will be called The Challenger, and production could start as early as May. It also said Michelle Williams, who’s been nominated for four Academy Awards, will star as McAuliffe, adding that the local social studies teacher will be the focus of the film.

I went through the official email channel seeking comment from Argent Pictures, the production company for the project, but came up empty. Deadline included statements from producer Ben Renzo, who was quoted as saying, “Christa McAuliffe’s legacy deserves the strength, courage, experience and humanity that Michelle Williams brings to the role.”

He also said Argent is “honored and eager to responsibly capture and share events and personal journeys of those surrounding this important historical moment.”

McAuliffe was chosen to become the first citizen in space, selected ahead of 10,000 candidates nationwide. She had a lesson plan for her students back at Concord High, and a lesson plan for us all, the one about taking chances and moving from your comfort zone and trying to make an impact in some way.

And even though she and six astronauts died that day in an explosion just 73 seconds after takeoff, it’s not corny or phony to say that McAuliffe inspired many students, in the Concord School District and beyond, to pursue careers in education.

In the time between the accident and its 30th anniversary in 2016, children had written book reports on McAuliffe, pursued teaching degrees and began to incorporate strong women into their lesson plans. A 2006 documentary was produced by a pair of female filmmakers who were wide-eyed teens engulfed in admiration for the Concord pioneer leading up to the launch.

“Christa was an innovator and an inspirational human being,” Bleier said, “and it’s about time her story was told. It’s pretty remarkable to have a citizen and a teacher slated to go into space and teach lessons and do what she did. She inspired so many.”

I spoke to several sources two years ago for my anniversary column, people like Marshall Greene and Cindy Edson and Joanne Walton, all of whom helped form a fundraising group for the science center bearing McAuliffe’s name.

They also relayed stories about how McAuliffe affected their lives. Greene’s 11-year-old daughter, Cameron Christopher, wrote her book report on McAuliffe for her class at Maple Street School in Hopkinton, and read books about Nobel Prize-winning women. Edson credited McAuliffe for her career as a guidance counselor.

Walton, who was supposed to have McAuliffe as her teacher in ’86 before tragedy struck, works in special education in Virginia and emailed me Wednesday, writing, “In my opinion, it’s long overdue. Although I think the timing is good because this generation needs to hear about her story, we need to hear more stories about courageous women, that’s for sure.”

Bob Hohler was the Monitor’s columnist in ’86 and was given special access to McAuliffe during the selection process. Now at the Boston Globe, Hohler wrote via email, “Generations of children should know her story and be reminded of the lessons she was teaching. There have been cinematic efforts in the past of varying degrees of success. I hope this one is better than the rest.”

Mike Pride, the Monitor’s editor when the Challenger exploded, said, “I like Michelle Williams but think it will be a challenge for her to capture Christa’s combination of gravitas and sunniness. It will be interesting, of course, to see how the story is portrayed more than a generation later.”

It will also be interesting to see what – if any –role McAuliffe’s family plays here. Fiercely private since that awful day, McAuliffe’s husband, Steven McAuliffe, a United States District Court judge, might have been out of the country this week, someone at his office said. He politely declined to comment two years ago.

But others are talking, filled with pure excitement, which was filtering through the Concord High staff (and, hopefully, its students) as word began to spread through the hallways.

Concord High Principal Tom Sica said a finalist for the teacher-in-space slot dropped by the high school last year, simply as a nostalgic tribute to the late teacher.

“Christa was a big part of her life,” Sica said, “and that tragedy had moved her, so it was like a pilgrimage for her.”

Will Hollywood make that same pilgrimage? “I imagine they would want to capture Concord High School, for sure,” Sica said.

Concord High would be the perfect setting, right? And there’s a certain classroom, now Bleier’s classroom, the one in which Christa once used, that would tie it all together.

“Of course that would be great,” Bleier said. “Really, really exciting.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)