Directed by Philip Kaufman
Written by Philip Kaufman, Based on the Novel by Tom Wolfe
Starring Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, Lance Henriksen, Donald Moffat, Levon Helm, Mary Jo Deschanel, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer
Released to relatively little success in 1983 during former astronaut John Glenn’s failed Presidential run, The Right Stuff has now become somewhat of a cult hit, garnering more praise as the years go by. And why not? Based on one of the best-selling nonfiction books by Tom Wolfe and written and directed by Philip Kaufman, an interesting figure in cinema by any measure, The Right Stuff is probably one of the most fun and fulfilling pictures in the epic tradition out there.
The story of the beginnings of the US space program and the first seven Mercury astronauts, beginning when Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaks the sound barrier in 1947. After the Soviets successfully launch the Sputnik satellite in 1959, the U.S. redoubles its efforts to catch up, selecting 7 pilots for the program. They instantly become super stars, appearing on television and having articles written about them in Life magazine. The work, however, is serious and dangerous, as it has never been done before.
The Right Stuff is truly marvelous in every way. A near-perfect synthesis of excellent screenwriting, sublime editing, stunning photography and great performances, Philip Kaufman’s 7th film never ceases to put a smile on my face.
Beginning in 1947 with the breaking of the sound barrier, Sam Shepard enters the fray as the story’s first true hero, Chuck Yeager, a bona fide ace of World War II, now a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. Shepard’s performance, which was nominated for an Oscar, is authentic and confident, showcasing the skills that this now-unheard-of actor possesses. Matching him in quiet countenance is Barbara Hershey as Yeager’s wife Glennis, in a small but impactful role. This first section of the film, despite depicting several historic flights by Yeager, is quite intimate and quiet, showcasing the stresses placed upon both the pilots risking their lives to “push the envelope” and on their wives, who will be left with nothing save a few months’ pay to pick up the pieces.
While Yeager and his civilian rival Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson) continue to break speed and altitude records, the film slowly introduces us to several smaller pilots with big destinies ahead, namely the slick, silver-tongued devil Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), the ever-serious Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). When President Eisenhower and Senator Lyndon Johnson (played hilariously and to a T by Donald Moffat, Texas drawl and all) form NASA, Grissom and Cooper will join the quietly confident and uniquely eccentric Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), along with Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), and of course, John Glenn (Ed Harris) to become America’s Mercury 7 astronauts, reaching levels of fame that Yeager and Crossfield never manage to achieve before they even step foot into the capsule.
It is here where Kaufman’s screenplay really shows its steady legs. Throughout the constant and ridiculous testing at NASA to bureaucracy and empty showmanship designed to stir up the American people about a program which could falter and collapse at any moment against the Soviets, The Right Stuff rightly presents all of the silliness and irony inherent in the nation’s early space program, and in the rivalry between the astronauts from all three branches of the military. There are just so many great examples: the Congressional briefing in which Harry Shearer and Jeff Golblum seriously suggest circus performers as astronaut candidates, the comical friendliness between Marine pilots Carpenter and Glenn while the others are so incredibly cut-throat towards each other, even the uncomfortable first flight of Shepard, who is ordered to hold his bladder in the capsule while shot after shot after shot of running hoses, spilled coffee, and bubbling water coolers taunt him from afar, become near-Vaudeville routines of humor. And all the while, the film never descends into lampoonery, dropping us back into seriousness with ease whenever one of the astronauts embarks on a flight or taking us back to Edwards to check in on Yeager.
Another strength of Kaufman’s script is the use of cinematic devices to convey its story. Consider the old preacher from Edwards who’s solemn duty there was to inform wives of their husband’s deaths, as if he were the Reaper himself. Being one of the first characters seen in the film, he pops up quite frequently in the first act, a constant reminder to the wives that their husbands may be next. And when Shepard embarks on his first trip into space, who is there watching and waiting for his possible death than he.
While all of the Mercury 7 actors are perfectly cast and precisely embody the larger-than-like men they portray, Harris is easily the standout, just as Glenn was. Harris conveys such a prim and pure honesty and confidence, not just in his skills behind a control stick but in his conviction to God, country, and family that I almost forget that I’m not actually watching John Glenn on the screen. But this isn’t just a man’s movie, as the women of the film turn in some great performances of their own. The aforementioned Hershey is a woman apart from the rest in her relative lack of interest in the glamorous life of the others, while Veronica Cartwright as Betty Grissom is just a true delight to watch. Mary Jo Deschanel is especially good as Glenn’s wife Ann, a fragile woman barely keeping it together as her husband sits atop a missile originally designed to nuke a city.
When the momentous flights into space truly begin, the technical mastery of Kaufman and his team become more apparent than ever. Shepard’s flight in particular displays some incredible matching with actual stock footage used, at the same time treating us to some of the best night photography I’ve ever seen. Editing by Tom Rolf is also perfectly sublime, making incredible use out of reused material for later cutaways that expand the scenes and work around what was surely budgetary constraints, while also providing some of the best scene transitions out there (my favorites are Yeager’s “What’s next, Ridley?” line, followed by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, and the slow move in to the pitch-black afterburner of Yeager’s F-104 and back into the Sam Houston Coliseum where the astronauts are being treated to a celebration).
Special effects in The Right Stuff aren’t really of the cutting-edge variety, even for 1983 standards, but this does well for the film as a whole. As Kaufman said of his and visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez’s work, “we tried new techniques and old ones, often jerry-built. Sometimes we hurled models out of windows and filmed them on their way down.” The result is a sense of gritty authenticity to the images presented, with each plane flight appearing almost completely real, while the main effects sequence of Glenn’s three orbits around the Earth has an eerie sense of analog charm to it that entrances me to this day. And while Bill Conti’s score was a last-minute replacement for the work of John Barry, Conti’s work is no less significant, providing some truly rousing and inspiring cues while adapting selections of Holtz’s The Planets for others.
All in all, I’d go so far as to say that The Right Stuff is one of the greatest films of the twentieth century. It’s intimate and humorous at the same time as it is epic, and is so good it is a film I enjoy around every 4th of July, contributing to the fact that our nation’s accomplishments in space are among the few I am still proud of. If you’ve never watched The Right Stuff, don’t let the three-hour runtime scare you. I would classify it as probably the most fun epic film you’ll ever see.