Tom Wolfe, author of the book, The Right Stuff, was a character. A sharp-eyed journalist with an even sharper tongue, he was able to recognize and record the smallest of details that gave depth to the journey about which he was writing. Always clad in a white suit, Wolfe also was a master at reminding us that the road to glory is usually an absurd one, and director/screenwriter Philip Kaufman’s screen adaptation of his book gets it absolutely right.
The American/Russian space race was one of the most unique events in the 20th Century. It was a combination of inflated national pride following WWII and a continuation of the climb to world dominance that required supreme focus, a complete surrender to science and math, and more than a little foolhardiness. It was also the first time since the 15thCentury that man boldly leapt out of his own domain into the darkness, only this time it wasn’t the sea – it was off the planet. And both the US and Russia were determined to be the first.
The heart of the film is test pilot Chuck Yeager, played by a broodingly stoic Sam Shepard in his third film role, a definite departure from his brilliantly successful run as a playwright. His Yeager, a former war hero chasing down his goal to be the first man to break the sound barrier, is fearless and determined, anchored to reality only by his wife, Glennis – an earthy and genuine Barbara Hershey. He achieves his goal early in the film in one of the it’s best sequences, but when his character is approached to become an “astro-naut”, Yeager is amused, dismissing anyone willing to do such a thing would be “spam-in-the-can”.
Besides, Yeager doesn’t have a university degree, a handy tool for some unknown purpose? National attention is deliberately diverted to the shiny and new participants – the anointed Mercury Seven – as the frenzied race begins, and the test pilots who frequented the Happy Bottom Riding Club – skilled and brave as they were – are all but forgotten.
While they were not complete unknowns, none of the rest of the cast were A-list actors, in fact, only Barbara Hershey had much of a filmography. After The Right Stuff, however, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, and Fred Ward, all found their names above the titles of the films that followed.
Kaufman’s screenplay gives the actors plenty of definition, so that in a very short period of time, we know with whom we are dealing, be they hot-doggers (Quaid’s Gord Cooper) or boy scouts who always know the right thing to say (Harris’s John Glenn). We follow them through manufactured press junkets, rigorous and often questionable training as they jockey for position to be the first man in space. Nearly equal time is given to the families of these chosen heroes-in-waiting, and we are witness to their fears of being widowed in front of a ravenous press corps.
Throughout his protrayal of this noble pursuit, Kaufman pepper’s his story with vivid satire that exposes the politics and media shit-storm that encompassed the Mercury mission. Each successful Russian space shot and American test failure is answered with a panicky sprint through hallways as the stakes get higher in the race for space, and when the Russians finally do launch Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961, the film picks up the pace. “Our Germans are better than their Germans” (referring to ex-Nazi Regime scientists commissioned by both sides for this specific project) is only one of many bitingly funny lines fired-off in the hysteria that follows. The Yanks finally do have their day, climaxing in John Glenn’s three-time orbit of the earth that Kaufman presents in an almost metaphysical way.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and composer Bill Conti, along with a band of sharp editors, accomplish some of their best work, elevating an already fascinating story by capturing all the wonder, pride and heartbreak that the Space Program became remembered for. Levon Helm narrates, and his pragmatic and observant voice keeps us oriented throughout the spectacle, but it’s the small moments, whether it’s a peek at the relationship between Glenn and his painfully shy wife, a moment of nearly disastrous human weakness by Gus Grissom, or Gordo Cooper’s moment in the spotlight – at last – that make the film complete.
It’s all there, from the big moments on the launch pad that played-out on the international stage to the small moments like chasing your love on horseback through the desert. Intimacy and grandeur, the key elements in the classic epic filmmaking, share the screen equally as if to remind us that all heroes do not necessarily make it to the TV screen.
While the film was adored by critics, as well as Oscar with regards to nominations, it was a box office failure, which baffles me to this day. Apparently the 80s crowd, dulled by the Reagan-Thatcher complacency and delusional importance that marked the decade, had little interest in humanity’s last true pioneering venture, a mindset that seems to have gotten a foothold. Now most of those heroes are gone, as are most of us who witnessed all of these accomplishments and, yes, the naive silliness that was the catalyst involved in securing them.
Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff is precisely that, both as a broad and observant historical commentary and as a work of cinematic storytelling at its paramount best. Heroes can be born or manufactured, but they endure only if they have the right stuff.