The true story of NASA’s Mercury programme, this chronicle of America’s pioneer spacemen is based on Tom Wolfe’s bestseller, which characterised the early US astronauts as heroic trailblazers, depicted here as the most intensively trained but nonetheless extremely brave men of the mid-20th century. The Right Stuff is an enthralling, magnificent and immensely entertaining docudrama with brisk screenwriting and imaginative direction by Philip Kaufman, who offers a cleverly astute inter-cutting of entirely factual and wholly fictional incidents, approached from both sincerely flattering and wickedly satirical angles.
It all starts with ace test pilot Chuck Yeager (playwright Sam Shepard, an actor who’s actually afraid of flying!), the man who broke the sound barrier in 1947. He epitomises the quiet courage and goal-oriented attitude of the pilots and aviators chosen to lead the US race into space. After the Russians claimed not one but two historical firsts with Sputnik (the first satellite) and Gagarin (first man in space), the Americans started to catch up, with future Moon walker Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn, all wiry charm and bravado), and future US Senator John Glenn (played by Ed Harris, who makes the squeaky-clean US Marines’ icon a solidly believable public figure), the unofficial leader for this group of hopeful astronauts, the first American in space, and first American to orbit the Earth, respectively. Other solo Mercury flights, before the space programme switched over to two-man Gemini missions, were piloted by brusque and guarded Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom (Fred Ward, a rather brooding presence), the perpetually boastful Gordon ‘Gordo’ Cooper (a broadly-grinning Dennis Quaid), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank, probably the only ‘bland’ performer in the whole film), and ‘Wally’ Schirra (Lance Henriksen, who looks very young here).
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Despite having the coolest name for a space hero, poor old ‘Deke’ Slayton (played by Scott Paulin) didn’t actually get launched into orbit until the Apollo-Soyuz project of 1975. You’ll have to forgive my pedantry, here; but I find this spacemen’s story endlessly fascinating.
As if competing with Shepard’s laconic Yeager, Kim Stanley is great as Pancho Barnes, landlady of a ramshackle bar in the Californian desert that’s like a second home to the elite test pilots of Edward’s Air Force Base. She’s unimpressed by the boastfulness of overconfident newcomers, and cheerfully puts them in their place by pointing out that only pilots actually killed in plane crashes get instant respect among the men with “the right stuff.” But it’s Barbara Hershey as Mrs Yeager (the Mach one rocket plane, ‘Glamorous Glennis’, was named after her), who leads the strong female cast – including Veronica Cartwright and Pamela Reed. Cartwright (from the 1970s’ science fiction hits Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and Alien) is excellent as the pushy and ultimately resentful Betty Grissom, without losing our sympathy, while Reed excels as the down-to-earth Trudy Cooper, an inspiring model of tolerance and mature understanding who gets taken for granted by her conceited and seemingly juvenile husband ‘Gordo’. We wonder, at first, why she puts up with him, but find out later that he’s not all bluster. Mary Jo Deschanel shines as the understandably nervous Annie Glenn, expressing a great deal here without much dialogue in just a few scenes, as the astronaut’s wife with a speech impediment who refuses to be interviewed – on live TV – by Lyndon B. Johnson (Donald Moffat), after John Glenn’s scheduled flight is cancelled. In one of the film’s warmest scenes, Annie gets her husband’s (100%!) backing to reject the tetchy Johnson’s PR demands, provoking an hilarious tantrum of outrage in the Vice President’s official limo.
In the most telling scenes of character development, The Right Stuff shows us how these all-American idols handled the onslaught of sudden and relentless TV and media attention. Intimidated at first by the paparazzi, yet quickly learning to use their newfound celebrity to further their careers, and later as public relations leverage against unfeeling (and faintly sinister) scientists who have a tendency to view astronauts as physical ‘specimens’ intended for biological and psychological study. There are, however, far greater issues being addressed and explored here. The Right Stuff dramatises inevitable changes within postwar American society, as the aspirations of rugged individuals makes way for cohesive teamwork, when even at the highest level of competency, many active participants in the US space programme learn they can only get things done ‘right’ when they work together.
Still, perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of The Right Stuff is its fine cast. In addition to all of the above (many of whom moved on to A-list film stardom, if they weren’t already at their peak), there’s Scott Wilson (who had played a failed astronaut in William Peter Blatty’s cult movie The Ninth Configuration, 1980) in a notable role as test pilot Scott Crossfield. We also see Jeff Goldblum in a comic role as one of the astronaut recruiters, John P. Ryan as the space programme’s administrative head, and David Gulpilil (of The Last Wave, 1977) as an aborigine who tells visitor Gordo Cooper about Australia’s mystic space travellers. There’s even the real General Chuck Yeager in a cameo as bartender, Fred!
The low-key, but utterly convincing, visual effects work is yet another thing in the production’s favour, evoking authoritative documentary realism in the aerial scenes, without compromising on the moments of soaring exhilaration, and the acute sense of danger in supersonic flight, essential for an adventure movie such as this. Bill Conti’s original music score won a well-deserved Oscar, and further Academy awards went to a team of editors, and the creative sound technicians.
TV trivia: Gerry Anderson named the main International Rescue characters in Thunderbirds after the famous Mercury astronauts.
This new two-disc Region 2 DVD is a 20th anniversary special edition, with a superb widescreen transfer, and Dolby digital 5.1 sound. The extras disc features scene specific commentaries in The Journey And The Mission – comprising half a dozen selected scenes, including the mach one flight, the NASA press conference, and Glenn in orbit (running to a total of 25 minutes) with two commentary tracks each; one has reminiscences by eight of the principal cast (though Sam Shepard is absent), and another has contributions from director Kaufman, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and composer Conti. Although there was supposedly a five-hour rough-cut of the film, only ten minutes of 4:3 footage survive for the compilation of 13 additional scenes presented here, but this does include the patriotic Glenn’s speech to Congress. While the great man himself appears in 86-minute laudatory biopic John Glenn: American Hero (1998), recounting his exploits and triumphs as a war pilot, astronaut and politician, with an eye on possibilities for the future of manned space exploration that Glenn has long championed. Such speculation is mirrored in the interactive timeline to space missions, which links to newsreel and archive footage of highlights from 50 years of NASA programmes to the new space plane that’s planned for 2012.
Three new retrospective documentaries provide some of the most interesting material here, bringing together filmed interviews with the cast and crew, plus a number of clips from behind the scenes. Realizing The Right Stuff (a worthwhile 21-minute featurette) revealing the filmmakers’ unusual working practices – that made this film so unlike any previous aviation or space epics. The film’s technical merits are further detailed in T-20 Years And Counting (12 minutes), directed by Jeffrey Lerner, who also filmed The Real Men With The Right Stuff (16 minutes), which has interviews with Chuck Yeager and three surviving Mercury astronauts Cooper, Schirra and Carpenter, who explode one or two myths, and criticise (but don’t condemn) The Right Stuff for its factual errors.