It’s hard to peg The Right Stuff (1983) as a film. It’s an epic story of men driven to push the extremes of flight risking their lives and familial well-being. But it’s not told in a conventional style. Writer/director Philip Kaufman adapted Tom Wolfe’s book nearer to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) than the shameless piece of propaganda it might have been. I haven’t read Wolfe’s book, but I imagine much of the humor and candor are owing in no small part to him. And if nothing else, this film is funny and candid. But there is more. There’s the cinematography (Caleb Deschanel) and special effects (Gary Gutierrez) that range from moody reflection to thrilling flight sequences with equal success. That they live in the same film is a testament to its quality and its 3 hour and 13 minute runtime suggests that at some point, producers trusted an audience to sit through something good.
In a California desert, test pilots, unheralded and unknown, pushed the envelope to every new boundary. What one man can do, another can out-do. You fly high, I’ll fly higher, you fly fast, I’ll fly faster. And one test pilot crashes his plane and gets his picture up on the wall. Some do it for the money, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) does it to wrestle with the unknown. Some thought that the sound barrier, Mach 1, might be like a wall in the sky that no plane could break through. Yeager did it. Three young pilots, Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), and Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) came out to Edwards Air Force Base to follow Yeager’s path and try to out-do him. Then the Russians put Sputnik into space and the United States had to respond.
They did so by creating the Mercury Project to send a man into space. But those men had to be the right sort of man. Eisenhower wanted test pilots. So two recruiters (Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer) found themselves the best American pilots they could find–with a college education–and put them through a serious of rigorous tests. Out of that came Grissom, Cooper, Navy aviator Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), All-American Marine pilot John Glenn (Ed Harris), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen), and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), who had to deal with the public adoration and private travails that came with it. So too the wives of these men (played by Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Mary Jo Deschanel, Kathy Baker, Mickey Crocker, Susan Kase, and Mittie Smith) who have to sit, wait, and sometimes watch as their husband sits on a rocket–whether it goes vertical or horizontal–that may just blow up and kill him. It ain’t for the weak at heart.
The Right Stuff is a pretty sterling film and, apart from being a cynical cash grab, is well presented in its 30th anniversary Blu-ray. That’s not because the transfer to blu-ray is particularly clear or marvelous–the special effects, while quite good, are not improved by clarity–but because it presents an opportunity to reexamine the space race in its political and human context when it’s begun to fade into collective ignorance. Where is our government-funded frontier to make heroes out of brave adventurers? What to do with the population of those with more guts than sense? Whatever you say about these men, their business wasn’t trivial. As I look over our world of glories, I see martyrs, magnates, and morons. The real heroes work in quiet desperation against, as someone once put it, a sea of troubles though opposition does not end them. That makes The Right Stuff prime real estate for nostalgia.
And yet it doesn’t really serve that need. If you hope to watch a highlight reel of America’s greatest accomplishments in aviation, you will only be half pleased. Those moments are present and terrific, but Kaufman approaches it from a very moody and skeptical angle. That’s not a betrayal, but an expression of these pilots. They often come back to this tense dynamic between the government and the astronauts because these guys have serious problems with authority. Their personalities drive them to ‘serve’ more out of their dark needs than because they’re good soldiers. Yeager personifies this quality and I suppose they’d call it “the right stuff.” It looks to me like something you’d see out of a Terrence Malick film. Except for these guys, it’s mostly covered up in laughs and swagger. As they say in the movie, “These guys don’t talk about it amongst themselves and with outsiders they talk about it even less.” There are a ton of great lines in this movie, many delivered by Goldblum, before he became Jeff “uh uh uh” Goldblum.
For those who have seen it and, like me, had a vague memory of enjoying it, you should definitely pick it up, but I have a thought for you. Was this the beginning of American Idol? It seems the government went out and looked for the best pilots in the world–the ones, anyway, that were ready for the bright lights and had the right education–stuck them in a box with one window, bolted them on a rocket and made sure they never flew a plane again while Chuck Yeager did the real stuff. It’s like they went out of their way to handicap the military by pulling out their best and putting them in a situation for which they were vastly overqualified. Once the mission transitioned to flights to the moon, where piloting and navigation were of great importance, there’s no doubt they needed skilled and brave people. But the first missions basically amounted to shooting people high into the sky and collecting them when they fell back to earth.
I’ll leave you with this one last thought. In the news, it might have been The Economist, I read that Lockheed is developing the SR-72, a reconnaissance plane that can do Mach 6. That’s 2,041 meters per second. That’s about the distance from New York to Los Angeles in a half hour. Sure, it can’t go that fast for a half hour, but if it can for three minutes, you might get to Toronto.
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