Wednesday, October 20, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Right Stuff (1983)

"There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate.

The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred-and-fifty miles-an-hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way.

He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier..."

- Opening Narration, The Right Stuff (1983) 

The Mercury 7: Men with the right stuff.
Sometimes, in the day-to-day struggle to make ends meet, it's easy to forget the scope and breadth of human achievement. 

We don't always recognize that the sky itself is no longer the limit, perhaps because our feet are planted so firmly on terra firma as we concern ourselves with mortgage payments, health insurance, and keeping our cars running.

But The Right Stuff (1983), directed by Phillip Kaufman and based on the best-selling book by Tom Wolfe, is a splendid cinematic reminder of our potential and possibilities as a species; at least if we keep our gaze heavenward. 

One of the film's valedictory flight scenes -- in which a test pilot daringly aims his needle-nosed jet heavenward and zealously attempts to pierce the veil of stars -- gets at this idea with a sense of emotional intensity, not to mention lyrical visual storytelling. 

Sometimes here on the blog, I write of "perfect movie moments," and this brief, climactic passage in The Right Stuff certainly qualifies as one of them.  The accomplished special effects, the quiet, sturdy performance of Sam Shepard, and the resonant feeling of the moment -- of a deep-seated human yearning to achieve escape velocity and see what no man has seen -- combine to forge something special and indeed, universal. This is cinema as expression of the human spirit.

Taken in toto, the 1983 movie is an epic, heroic poem concerning a can-do nation in its prime, and the heroes that it produced during an all-out "space race" with the Soviet Union.  But it's also a movie about the things that man can accomplish when he is at his best.  Critic David Thomson said it perfectly when he wrote that The Right Stuff is "a mix of beauty and satire, comedy and pathos, character and reputation, that is endearing and challenging." (Have You Seen? Borzoi Books, 2008, page 727.)

"We want the best pilots that we can get..."

A funeral and tribute to the fallen.
In some ways, The Right Stuff is actually two parallel narratives in one. 

The first story concerns the unassuming, tell-it-like-it-is test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) and his on-going attempts at Edwards Air Force Base to "push the envelope"  by breaking the sound barrier and other human speed records.  

Yeager continues this task -- after his initial record aboard the X-1 in 1947 -- with little fanfare or recognition.  He doesn't do it for the plaudits.  He certainly doesn't do it for the money (he gets paid 283 dollars a month...).  He does it because there's a mountain before him, and he feels the need to climb it.  To see what's on the other side.

The second story concerns our nation's first team of NASA astronauts in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

You'll recognize the names of this famous seven: John Glenn (Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin). 

These guys are hot-shots and patriots, family men and explorers, and all their exploits are recorded under the bright lights of an enthusiastic, supportive and even frenetic national media.  The Seven are American "stars," and yet  -- just like Yeager, again -- they undertake great, heroic tasks too.  Shepard is the first American in space; Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth, etc. 

The high-profile astronauts ultimately use the press's unceasing attention and devotion to assure that they get a "say" in their own destinies at NASA, and on the direction of the space program itself.  In return for being heard and respected, they invest themselves -- heart and soul -- in the program.

We are meant to understand the parallel stories of The Right Stuff as deliberate reflections of one another.  Yeager is held up as an example of an iconic, mythic American hero: an old-fashioned, aw-shucks cowboy-type. 

Yet the very modern Mercury Seven have a difficult task too.  "The astronauts are depicted as struggling to maintain a sense of individual heroics in the face of mediation between technology and the press hullabaloo that surrounds their every move," suggests author Geoff King in Spectacular Narratives: Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster (I.B. Tauris Books, 2000, page 69).

That intriguing fulcrum -- the so-called mediation between technology and the press hullabaloo -- is, in some senses, the core of modern America, and American celebrity/politics.  How do you use the press to get your message out?  How do you control both technology (such as the net, or television) and the mechanisms of the press to stay true to your own values?  These are not small issues, and in some sense, The Right Stuff functions as a critique of the new hyper-connected America, thus forecasting, perhaps, the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle and the domination of Cable TV.

Yet the film succeeds because it portrays the astronauts -- the new heroes of the space age -- both as innately courageous and also as very real men.  A few of 'em have wandering eyes; one of 'em cracks jokes that might be perceived as racist (or at least in bad taste), Glenn enjoys having the microphone a bit too much, and so on. 

In one great and utterly human moment, the film cuts from a broadcaster (Eric Severeid)  at a launch, wondering -- to the entire, rapt nation -- about astronaut Alan Shepard and his thoughts on the verge of his first space mission.  

"What can be going through a man's mind at this moment?" the journalist muses aloud.

The movie provides an immediate and indecorous answer.  "I have to urinate," Shepard tells his friend Gordo, at Mission Control. "Permission to relieve bladder?"

To some folks, that moment may play as something perilously close to farce.  And indeed some scenes in The Right Stuff involving Jeff Goldblum's character (at the White House, with Eisenhower) qualify as political farce, as a circus. But moments such as Shepard's request to go to the bathroom are also extremely real.   So The Right Stuff  suggests that the more connected we are, and the more the press pushes the narrative of astronauts as heroes of the classic mold, the more the men themselves

We can admire these "public" men at the same time we acknowledge that they are, in the end, men.  Warts and all. In fact, the movie's awareness of their common humanity is what helps us relate to them and understand their achievements as ones that -- with a little luck and in the right circumstances -- we would hope to make ourselves.

In both of The Right Stuff's parallel narratives, the viewer is left to marvel at the daredevil capacity of such men as these to achieve what others have not, and in some cases simply because they don't like the idea of retreating before hurdles, bowing before an unseen "demon in the sky," as the film's opening voice-over describes the unknown.

Whenever I get down about our nation, or the direction it might be headed, I remind myself of The Right Stuff and this story of such men who made a better, smarter future happen through their own grit and fortitude. 

Or as Vincent Canby wrote in his review of The Right Stuff for The New York Times: "The film almost makes one glad to be alive in spite of famines, wars and even ''the greenhouse effect...''  I would modify that thought only to say that the film does make one feel glad to be alive.  Very definitively.

"It takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that's on TV..."

Death Himself has come for another courageous pilot.
The Right Stuff goes to great lengths as well to portray the dangers that await the men who first approach the next frontier of knowledge. 

Test pilots have an astounding death rate, the movie notes, something like a one-in-four chance of dying in the cockpit, or in flight. 

To express this notion of danger visually, Kaufman expertly utilizes the technique of cross-cuttingDuring Yeager's historic flight to shatter the sound barrier, for instance, the film cuts to an interesting tribute; to photographs of dead pilots, mounted on a wall in a bar called Pancho's

This visual connection establishes that Yeager's great accomplishment is not just a personal one, but the cumulative effort of every pilot who has put his life on the line to increase the breadth of human knowledge.  Again, we are being conveyed important information about us; about the human animal.  To move forward, to progress, we must climb over the backs of those who have gone before. We don't do it alone, or in a vacuum.  We do it through connection to our past, and to explorers of the past.

The test pilots and astronauts are legitimately pioneers, and their vocation is incredibly dangerous, so Kaufman portrays the ever-present danger in other interesting cinematic and symbolic ways too.  There are two funerals featured in the film's first thirty minutes, for instance, and then there's also the unusual presence of a taciturn man in black, a preacher (Royal Dano). 

This grave-faced figure represents nothing less than the specter of death itself, solemnly appearing out of black silhouette to notify next-of-kin that a pilot has died, or later silently stalking a rocket launch countdown at Cape Kennedy; as if to remind the audience that Death is ubiquitous..and  always ready to claim his next victim.

In the race to get a foothold in space, there is no room for cowards, and yet, simultaneously and perhaps paradoxically there is great terror in the quest.  Ultimately, Yeager -- who could have been an astronaut and wasn't -- recognizes the brotherhood of astronauts as kindred spirits.   This recognition is both a blessing from a father figure (and national hero) and an important passing of the torch to a new era of modern men.

When a colleague suggests that monkeys could fly a space capsule, Yeager's protective response is blistering, and telling:  "You think a monkey knows he's sittin' on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see? Well, I'll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that's on TV."

Perhaps that's "the right stuff" of the film's title: the ability to take a personal risk for the betterment of everyone else.  It doesn't necessarily matter how you get there (a capsule riding an exploding fire cracker, as "spam in a can," or aboard a new and dangerous test vehicle).  It matters where you're going, and the grace with which you face that destination.

The Right Stuff strongly benefits from great, traditional special effects. This film was crafted well before the age of CGI, and every flight depicted in the film is accomplished with miniatures; with models.  It's amazing, meticulous, and stirring work and it hasn't aged a day (unlike the CGI effects of Apollo 13 [1995], which today appear somewhat cartoonish, to my dismay). 

The class of 1983.
Equally as important, The Right Stuff features great performances from arguably the most talented class of actors in modern Hollywood history. 

Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Lance Henriksen, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer, Sam Shepard, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, Barbara Hershey, and Fred Ward...and on and on.   I mean...these guys are the best-of-the-best in Hollywood today, and yet there's never,  ever a sense in this film that anyone is trying to one-up anyone else, trying to claw to the top of the pack. 

The ensemble work is flawless and charming, and among the Mercury 7 a strong feeling of esprit-de-corps -- of brotherhood -- is transmitted. 

Just as powerfully, the scenes of the strong, silent Sam Shepard (as Yeager) really resonate in the memory.  He is the lone wolf, unappreciated and even forgotten in the 1960s, but still damned courageous.  The movie strongly equates Yeager with an old fashioned cowboy at several important points.  He prowls the desert on horseback, and arrives at his X-1 riding his trusty steed.  The Marlboro Man takes to the sky.

What I also appreciated in The Right Stuff is the film's good understanding of the realities of space travel.  NASA relies on funding, and the good graces of the public (and yep, the press). As soon as public awareness fades, or press attention dissipates, the funding dissolves too.  The astronauts must put on a dog-and-pony show to remain in the public eye; it's actually part of their job description in this new modern, mass media era. 

This is so true, and the movie  also very ably captures some cruel, unspoken aspect of our fast-moving popular culture.  One day, Chuck Yeager is the cock of the walk...the next day he's a feather duster (to quote Thunderdome).  He's forgotten.

The astronauts, we are acutely aware, face the same problem.  The bulk of the film simply occurs early in the continuum; when the public is still fascinated with them and the space race.  We know today that the space program rarely draws headlines or much enthusiasm from the general public, and these great modern astronauts -- great men like Yeager -- toil without any real recognition or appreciation for the dangers they face.  The space program too often comes up in headlines only in the case of budget cuts, or worse, human tragedy.

If The Right Stuff bears any structural weakness, it is that the movie makes the engineers and scientists at NASA figures of fun, ostensibly for the sake of glamorizing the noble astronauts and pilots.  These engineers and scientists clearly don't know their asses from their elbows, according to the movie. 

This is simply wrong...those men and women are heroes and patriots too.  In the space age, everyone is part of the team, down to the folks in mission control, and down to the brilliant, problem-solving engineers who make rockets fly...and function, in the most difficult of situations.  In this regard, Apollo 13 is a more well-rounded film.  It ably demonstrates the contributions to space flight of not just heroic pilots, but those who remain on the ground and shepherd our star voyagers safely home.

Still, this is a relatively small quibble with a film that I consider one of the best movies of the 1980s (even if it was considered a box office bomb at the time).  If you were ever inspired by space travel, if you ever had an unyielding desire to touch the stars with your bare hands...The Right Stuff is a powerful depiction of those feelings.

Finally, permit me an indulgence.  I would like to close today's review of a great film with the stirring words of another national hero, President John F. Kennedy, as they were spoken on September 12, 1962. 

Philip Kaufman's 1983 film perfectly reflects the spirit of the President's message to all Americans on that day:

"The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.

"Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space.

We mean to be a part of it--we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.

For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man..."


  1. SteveW12:08 PM

    Thanks for your glowing review of this terrific film--a reminder to me to watch it again with the kids, who are at an age where they can really appreciate it. Hard to believe that it's over 25 years old. I especially like your callout of the timelessness of the special effects. Kaufman had his own network of artists and craftsmen up in San Francisco (his base of operations) that he recruited for his "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and then this, and it's worth recognizing how good their work really was. I do think there's something charming, human, and timeless about hand-crafted effects work as opposed to the modern digital stuff, which I've always feared wouldn't age well.

  2. I can never quite fathom why this film isn't held in higher regard (or known for that matter). Tremendous film that in many ways chronicles the era that led to our fascination with space travel, sci-fi etc. Great piece John.

  3. Grayson7:24 PM

    Wow, John, a very thoughtful review. Thanks so much for this!

    I believe that your comments about the negative aspects of the media in the film are spot on. Today the 24/7 news cycle with cable television and the Internet has only amplified these negative aspects, in my opinion.

    One of my favorite scenes in the film takes place when Gordo Cooper meets several Aborigines at a NASA tracking station in Australia. The films cuts between the old shaman's bonfire on Earth and John Glenn's Friendship Seven spacecraft. I find this to be a brilliant synthesis of the old and the new, of the ancient and the modern, and of the natural and the technological. It really shows that the space program affected the lives of most everyone on the planet. As the plaque that the Apollo 11 astronauts later left on the moon said, "We came in peace for all mankind." When we consider that the rockets used in the space program were derived from ICBMs designed to carry nuclear warheads and from the rockets developed by NAZI Germany this is especially important.

    My few nitpicks with the film include some of the minor historical details, although one tends to forgive them as the filmmakers seemed to get things better than the average Hollywood film. As you stated, the film provides an interesting contrast with Apollo 13. I, too, am a fan of that film but The Right Stuff has grown on me over the years and I now consider it to be superior.

    Lastly, if anyone is interested in some of the men from the wall at Pancho's, here is link to a very cool website that mentions some of these forgotten faces:

    Thanks so much for the review John,


  4. Hello my friends, thank you for leaving such great comments about The Right Stuff.

    Steve W: I wholeheartedly agree about watching The Right Stuff with the children. As soon as Joel is old enough, I hope to screen the film for him. The movie really gets at the passion of discovery and exploration. It's something I hope Joel will feel and experience, and this movie is a good introduction. (Of course, if Joel decides to become an astronaut, my wife will kill me...).

    And yes, I watched The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 back-to-back last week, and since a decade separates the films, I was curious to see how the special effects would hold up, side-by-side.

    I also very much like the film, Apollo 13, but in terms of effects, there's simply no contest. Those CGI effects today look very primitive, whereas Kaufman's miniatures are amazing in The Right Stuff. I didn't realize that he had his own unit in SF creating those terrific sequences.

    indianhoop: I agree. The Right Stuff deserved a wider audience at the time of its release; and does so now too. The film is so inspiring. I fell in love with it all over again. I know Roger Ebert has listed it as one of his "Great Movies" too.

    Grayson: Thank you for mentioning that wonderful scene with the Aborigines in The Right Stuff. It's a powerful moment, as you insightfully noted, capturing how important the achievement of Glenn (and the others) truly was in terms of the sweep of human history. The conjunction of the ancient and the modern -- like you said -- shows us how we carry the past and the present -- and past and present achievements -- with us into the future. Nobody suceeds in something like this alone.

    I need to check out that link!

    Thank you all for great comments!


  5. As the other commenters have already said, this is one heck of a thoughtful (and great) review, John. Though I think director Kaufman sought a reflective ensemble piece, he succeeded in creating a modern historical epic. You presented an interesting contrast as well by mentioning the differences with Howard's APOLLO 13. Especially with the scientists and engineers that represented NASA.

    Even though the films (TRS and A13) are separated by a decade, there is an enormous difference in the history windows each replicates on celluloid. Perhaps, the structural weakness you noted for The Right Stuff in how it treated the scientific/technical support staff reflected the real lack of knowledge and experience for this group as they were literally pioneering space flight at the time, perhaps.

    From the end of the Mercury Project in the early 60s to the Apollo Program (and flight 13), their sophistication and know-how on the technical side represented a huge leap. And you see that well embodied in APOLLO 13's depiction of those supporting scientists and engineers. I think, to their credit, both films may have depicted NASA's growing pains and achievements acceptably (I agree with Grayson's comment, that the "filmmakers seemed to get things better than the average Hollywood film").

    Indeed, I remember The Right Stuff fondly. I was one of the few folks that took this film in on its highly neglected first run in theaters. It remains a mesmerizing memory. I swear, that penultimate sequence where Kaufman intermixes the Houston astronaut celebration with Yeager's altitude record run with the NF-104A is one stunning bit of filmmaking. I've shown my kids APOLLO 13, and after the kids finish with their tricks or treats, your review calls for their introduction with this great film, my friend.

    Thanks for this, John.

  6. Super job on this review John!

  7. Anonymous5:36 AM

    I had never seen The Right Stuff until last night. What a film, what a cast and what a story. Your review is insightful and resonates very strongly with my own feelings - almost a "lost age" of heroism and leaps of faith, with rudimentary (by today's standards) technology and incredibly strong patriotic undertones. As unrelentingly expensive and devisive space exploration may be, Man must continue to "push the envelope" simply because He can - the ordinary men turned heroes in The Right Stuff embody that spirit.

    Mention must be made, too, of the wives who held it all together under the twin pressures of their loved ones' dangerous missions and constant press bombardment. Test pilots received any amount of training but their better halves had to fend for themselves, it seemed - I thought the performances of the actresses in the cast were just as riveting as the men's.

    A great review, John, for a great film......


  8. Hi John,

    I just re-read your review of The Right Stuff tonight on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It's still a great review!

    Wishing you the best, my friend.



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