Written and Directed by Philip Kaufman (based on the book by Tom Wolfe)
Starring: Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid – over 150 speaking roles!
Tagline: How the Future Began
Trivia: Playing astronaut Alan Shepard, Scott Glenn refused to meet with the real life figure he was playing and instead shaped his performance by talking to people who knew him. Upon seeing the film, Shepard praised the accuracy of Glenn’s performance.
The Right Stuff introduced a post-modern sensibility to the historical epic. Spanning the years 1947-1963, director Philip Kaufman crafted a self-conscious work of cinema, a representation of the past told with a sly wink. All the contradictions blend into a tapestry: the tone is satiric, yet sincere; reverent and irreverent; patriotic, never jingoistic; experimental and conventional; a mash up of fact and fiction; grandiose and intimate.
Based on Tom Wolfe’s classic book, Kaufman’s screenplay perfectly gets its tone and even expands upon the themes: the closing and opening of frontiers, the explosion of mass media and its corrosive power to shape image and identity, and still manages to capture the wonder of the Space Age in ways Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey came up short.
The early scenes take place at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of California, where the most advanced planes were tested after the Second World War. It’s where legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) ruled the skies. The cinematography of Caleb Deshanel has a dark hue in these scenes. They look like a faded memory from an otherworldly Western. Yeager’s reputation and mythic status rested upon his quiet dignity (according to legend all test pilots at Edwards began to speak in his West Virginia drawl). The flying sequences are second to none, Yeager’s record breaking flight captures the perfect symbiosis between man and machine.
Then the film jumps ahead to 1953 as a new crop of pilots are congregated at Edwards to test the latest jets, among them future astronauts Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), and Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid). Meanwhile their wives must live in hostile conditions and hope their husbands return home safely (funerals were common at the base). The men only communicate with each other through a macho code so the wives humanize them. By far, the most human scenes in the movie take place between the pilots and their wives.
After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957 everything changed: the Space Age began in earnest. In a scene reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove, government officials act like children and fret over Soviet satellites dropping nuclear bombs on American cities, Lyndon Johnson especially comes off as a mindless brute.
Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, improvising in every scene, play bumbling recruiters seeking out the best pilots. Yeager treats them with contempt, showing no interest in being “spam in a can.” But to the younger generation of pilots, the prospect of becoming an astronaut promised a life of fame and entry into the history books (not to mention a release from humdrum military life). NASA expected their pilots to exude the wholesome image of the Eisenhower era: polite, decent, God fearing family men. Few fit the bill better than John Glenn in a standout performance by Ed Harris, played with complete sincerity and no hint of cynicism.
The training scenes are played strictly for laughs. The candidates must compete against chimps, Russians, and the bureaucrats of NASA to win the title of astronaut. Meanwhile, their public images were being chiseled like Mount Rushmore figures in Life Magazine, the sacred periodical of the day.
Kaufman never loses sight of the humanity, as opposed to Kubrick who seemed more in awe with the technology of space travel. Before Alan Shepard lifted off he muttered, “Dear Lord, please don’t let me fuck up.” Shepard’s successful flight proved a public relations victory for NASA and he received a hero’s welcome. But no such luck for Gus Grissom. After splashdown the hatch on his capsule blew and he nearly drowned. NASA treated him like a screw up, leading to a poignant scene between Fred Ward and Veronica Cartwright.
The reenactment of John Glenn’s historical flight, the first American to orbit the earth, brings the film to a soaring climax. It would be easy to make such a moment corny, yet everything about it feels genuine.
Kaufman ends the film on an enigmatic note by cutting back and forth between a garish party at the Houston Astrodome for the “Mercury 7” and an aging Yeager’s attempt to break yet another altitude record no one cares about. Yeager’s flight, based on a real incident, forced him to eject from his plane and he almost died (an actual stunt man died during the filming of the scene). Meanwhile the astronauts are treated as if they are Gods in the brave new world of the space age. The changing of the guard.
The Right Stuff won Oscars for editing, sound, sound effects, and Bill Conti’s music. One of the best films of the 80s, The Right Stuff achieved a tone and style never duplicated since.