The Right Stuff

(USA 1983)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward, Kim Stanley, Jeff Goldblum, Pamela Reed, Veronica Cartwright, Lance Henriksen, Donnald Moffat, Mary Jo Deschanel, Kathy Baker, Harry Shearer
Genre: Drama
Director: Philip Kaufman
Screenplay: Philip Kaufman, based on the book by Tom Wolfe
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Composer: Bill Conti
Runtime: 193 minutes

"I just thank God we live in a country where the best and finest in a man can still be brought out" - John Glenn in The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff is a very Americentric look at the Mercury 7 astronauts, the pioneers of the countries space program. It is a feel good movie, at times reeking of patriotism, that captures the spirit of the brave test pilots who risked their lives for their country and words like first, fastest, and farthest. At the same time it's a character study of the pilots, it's also a satire of the hoopla that surrounded the astronauts from politicians like LBJ wanting the rub of being seen with the astronaut's wife (long before that
waste of film) on the day he was going into space to the journalists making them public heroes and the greatest pilots who ever lived from the moment they made the group to the freebees they got for being a cool astronaut even if they hadn't left the ground yet.

The focus of the film is on the men who pushed the outside of the envelope. That makes it a fitting choice for director Philip Kaufman whose The Unbearable Lightness Of Being was one of the most thoughtful looks at adult sexuality, Henry & June was the first NC-17 film because of the matter of fact way the unconventional sexual decisions of the threesome were presented, and latest outing Quills was about the Marquis de Sade, The Right Stuff is a daring film, but not in the way those were. It's not at all sexually oriented and rated PG, but it's an expensive nearly 3 hour 15 minute film that starts well before the space program, lacks a conventional hero, traditional plot, and true closing. What it "lacks" makes it a better film though, and Kaufman is the right director for it because two of his other strengths, adapting literature to the screen and period pieces (The Wanderers and Quills are a few examples), are so important to the success.

The length of the film is necessary because it's a historical epic that spans so many years. It succeeds in educating the audience on both well known and little known aspects of America's history. Keep in mind this all is done from the American perspective, but that's because its goal is to capture the feel of the players directly involved - the astronauts, their wives, and the greatest test pilot Chuck Yeager - and the magnitude of the project. It makes the film more authentic even though the communist = monster feeling it portrays is reprehensible. Much of the success of the film comes from the way Kaufman focuses on one important event, but during it logically cuts to the other characters that are observers at the moment (the pilots who aren't flying) and the characters who are always observers (the wives who realize there husbands have at least a 25% chance of not coming home to them). This is not Kaufman making a bunch of silly camera movements, screaming I can be a *bleep* filmmaker, I can be *bleep* Robert Altman like the *bleep* pretentious *bleep* inartistic *bleep* elongated *bleep* self-indulgent *bleep* exercise in pointlessness known as *bleep* Magnolia was for *bleep* Paul Thomas Anderson (sorry I wasn't quite able to "rise" to the level where every other word was an obscenity like P.T. was). It's just good straight filmmaking that presents many perspectives and emotions, that gives you the feel of what it was like to be around the pilot without losing the feel of what it was like to be the pilot.

Before astronauts existed, the best pilots were located at Edwards airforce base. Some of them were civilians, and none of them were paid well. They were a close knit unit who lived in nature, but also in obscurity. Their houses were not much more than shacks in the middle of a desert that seemingly only contains the base and the bar. They manned the best technology of the time, but they were undisciplined cowboys who do things the old fashioned way. Early on Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaks a few ribs getting thrown off a horse not many hours before a test flight and can't close the hatch, so Jack Ridley (Levon Helm) saws the janitors broom handle in half so Yeager can use his good arm to close it. Of course, even though he's not at 100% Yeager still breaks the sound barrier and becomes the fastest man alive.

Even though he's the best test pilot, Yeager doesn't become an astronaut because the government is looking for the best men that meet their criteria rather than simply the best men. One of those criteria is a college education, which Yeager doesn't have. Yeager is against the space program right away because he doesn't believe they'll be real pilots. He says, "it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially when it's on TV." He claims they'll be "Spam in a can," men that do the job of a monkey only they actually know they are risking their life for something they have no control over. Although Yeager is ultimately wrong because the astronauts, using their media popularity as collateral, fight for their right to pilot, a later scene perfectly illustrates how the times have changed.

This scene is where Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) is set to be the first American in space. Everything is computerized and he has no control of his takeoff. He's only supposed to be in space for 15 minutes so he thinks nothing of drinking four cups of coffee that morning. Unfortunately, for seemingly no reason other than indecision and panic, his takeoff is delayed, and delayed, and delayed some more. Alan has so little control that he must ask permission to urinate, and they didn't plan for bodily functions. At first he's denied because introducing liquid might create some kind of imbalance, but finally he's allowed to wet himself and we see the sensors go off because a foreign object is all up his back. Although moments like this make us laugh at the astronauts, at the same time we realize their courage and dedication. He's robbed of his dignity for his chance to possibly die during lift off or later on in the mission.

The film does a great job of bringing home the dangers and stresses the pilots endure. For the test pilots, it's all hands on. The speed is such that you can't get a steady ride and thus everything is blurred. It can knock your head into the glass window of the cockpit even if you are careful. For the astronauts, you don't make it unless you can endure every kind of torture. It's not torture to be cruel, but the idea is you must be able to handle every possible rigorous and dangerous situation on the ground before they'll put you in a wildly expensive craft and send you into the air. This is the kind of thing that makes the movie Space Cowboys, where you have geriatrics who practically keel over running one lap going up in space less than 30 days later, so ludicrous. There was enough to like about the movie, but the basis for so many Hollywood films these days is just so annoyingly silly. Anyway, the astronauts here are treated like test animals, subjected to everything the scientific doctors can think of without knowing the purpose of the specific exercise.

One of the points the film makes is it's all about the money. Some pilots are better than others, but it's not like running a race. Most of their goals are determined almost solely by the technology they are using. The line used in the movie is "no bucks, no Buck Rogers." The most telling segment in the movie brilliantly intercuts Yeager on the near deserted airbase and a big party for the astronauts who have now moved to Texas where they get free houses and all the other trimmings. There's a new plane on the base that's possibly the best in the world and probably good enough to set the record a foreigner now holds. For the glory of it, to chase that demon in the sky one more time, Yeager goes up not only without media coverage but also without clearance. He's still a maverick, unconverted by the rules and regulations of the new technological defense program. While the astronauts are watching a feather holding show dancer with their audience, Yeager goes up so high in the plane that he can see space or more likely just thinks he can because the uneducated are limited by the technology they are allowed to use. He's out of his territory and the plane spirals out of control, resulting in millions of dollars of loss when he has to eject. Yeager is still not looked down upon because he's unchanged. Going up without permission obviously isn't responsible, but since he's a real pilot it had no bearing on the negative result. He remained true to what he always was, a daring pilot, it's just that his equipment failed him this time. It punctuates that the film is about the dream and the dangers that come with it.

The film explores many themes including honor, risk, sacrifice, accomplishment, teamwork, and competition. The pilots all have some flaw to their character, but it doesn't keep them from being shown as heroes. The point is not whether you agree they are, but that you understand their job well enough to decide. It shows that the media and politicians are no gauge since they have their own interests at heart and go with the in thing. Yeager had his day in the sun, but I'd never heard of him until I saw this film. He accomplished more as a pilot, but I knew the astronauts because there was hoopla surrounding them and their accomplishments were deemed worthier.

Although the astronauts end of the space race is shown in an almost entirely positive light, the governments is just the opposite. Everything they do is a direct result of the Cold War. It's not about pushing the envelope like it was in Yeager's heyday. It's about escalation due to fear the communists will be number one if they control space like the controller of the road, sea, and air was #1 in their time. The scenes where the latest events in the space race are presented to the president are hilarious. Even after Russia gets a man in space, we see the head of the space program trying to make our first man equally anticipated and important because he's the first free man in space. The competition "makes" the government act irresponsibly at times, which is ironic because the pilots are equally competitive but never get out of line. We see their disappointment when someone breaks their record, but they are gracious and realize that the other mans life if worth more than the record.

The acting, featuring few performers that were names at the time, is excellent. Shepard is the biggest standout. Not surprisingly, he's the silent type, but Yeager is a character of great subtlety complexity. He has no less confidence and fearlessness than any of the other pilots, but he's modest and humble. He doesn't care if anyone knows who he is or what he's done. He's a simple man who doesn't care about money. The only time he kind of speaks up is when he rejects the space program because he doesn't want his fellow pilots to do an animals work. As the film goes on, he suffers. Not because he's jealous, he even sticks up for, but because the space program has all the funds so he's not able to accomplish anywhere near what he used to. He doesn't live in the past, but he's sad because he realizes things that are out of his hands are preventing him from future accomplishments and maintaining his own standards.

Ed Harris is typically great as "Mr. Clean Marine" John Glenn. He's the goody two shoes public speaker with an impeccable image, strong morals and family values. He's the kind of person that was honorable at the time, but now he'd be ignored in favor of the Dennis Rodman's and Daryl Strawberry's of the world. He's very confident and passionate, always sure he's doing the right thing and never afraid to stand up for these beliefs.

Dennis Quaid is also good as Gordon "Hot Dog" Cooper. He's so calm that he can fall asleep in the shuttle before they send him into space. He's arrogant and egotistic, believing he's the best pilot in the world, but still likeable. His best scene is at the Texas barbecue before he goes up into space when he's asked who the best pilot he ever saw was. We think he's going to go against his catch phrase and admit it's Yeager, but the press keeps interrupting his long story. Finally, after getting interrupted and cut off too many times, he goes back to his famous line "you're lookin' at him."

Fred Ward is the perfect opposite to Quaid as Cooper's best friend Gus Grissom. Grissom is the films most tragic character, never looking at things or feeling the same after being quietly discredited upon returning from his first mission. The film doesn't really take a stance on the hatch blowing incident, which resulted in his craft sinking to the bottom of the ocean, it simply shows the backlash of it. It shows the government caring more about their technology than their men, and how they don't take care of their own as well as they should. However, the point is countered with Grissom still getting his free house and whatnot.

Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard and sometimes Jose Jimenez is the funniest astronaut of the bunch. One problem with the film is some of Mercury 7 astronauts are almost invisible. We get like 4 ½ astronauts rather than 7, with Lance Henriksen being notably wasted. Some of the other characters are caricatures, but this doesn't bother me because opportunistic politician Lyndon Johnson and tight ass manly Nurse Murch are basically there to be laughed at and in their small roles Donald Moffat and Jane Dornacker made them memorable.

The award-winning soundtrack is really good and certainly achieves its purpose. Bill Conti's work during the flight scenes hits courageous and glorious notes, lifting your spirits and making you proud of the pilots and the country they fly for. It will piss you off if you don't want something overly heroic, but then again so will the rest of the scenes with the pilots. There's also old songs used to give it the film the flavor of the period and show the passage of time.

The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is excellent. Instead of whirling the camera all around to make the audience nauseous, we get the lost technique of a steady shot where the things in front of the camera are doing all the crazy movements. This is the only way the film could work because we have to feel like the men are going through all these exhausting and highly straining ordeals and rigors. There's also the slow motion image of the astronauts walking that has been stolen several times, several breathtaking shots of the test pilots flying through the clouds, and so on. The special effects used once again show how overrated CGI and its total lack of authenticity is. Overall, this is Kaufman's best visual production. It feels real and authentic.

It seems like I've written a lot, but The Right Stuff is such a grand production that I barely scratched the surface. There are so many characters, anecdotes, and incidents that add up to a very interesting movie that captures the essence of the pilots lives and how those lives relate to the world around them. One of the most remarkable things about it was Kaufman's ability to fit all this material into the film without it being 10 hours. It mainly sticks to the non-fiction of author Tom Wolfe's book, but I liked how Kaufman wasn't afraid to stray from the main points in favor of time. For instance, there's a mystical section where Aborigine's including Walkabout's David Gulpilil help the astronauts and somehow send sparks into space that greet the orbiting Glenn. It's not a scene that needed to be in the movie, but it made for some remarkable visuals and showed that people who aren't wrapped up in Cold War politics can do things for the right reasons.

The definition of The Right Stuff is talked about, but never fully explained. This serves two purposes. First, it goes along with the pilots and their families not discussing their job because of the dangers it entails. Second, there is no true definition. The characters all have certain things in common like bravery, the desire to be the best, willingness to sacrifice, and a touch of insanity, but they are all distinct individual from varying backgrounds. Like the movie, it's easiest to just say they had The Right Stuff because they entered a field with many competitors and succeeded to such an extent. Certainly a key point to the film is competition is the driving force behind achievement, and The Right Stuff certainly stands well above its space age predecessors like the entirely predictable, totally suspenseless, especially overlong, and pitifully manipulative Apollo 13.



* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *