By John H. Foote
13. THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)
“There was a demon that lived in the sky. 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 One, 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 pass. They called it the sound barrier.”
– Narrator (Levon Helm), The Right Stuff
In 1947 test pilot Chuck Yeager crashed through the sound barrier and just kept pushing. Others followed him, some broke his record, only to have him break theirs, and it was widely considered the greatest of these test pilots, the most fearless, was Yeager.
One of the greatest films of the eighties, The Right Stuff should have been a blockbuster dominating the spring through the end of the summer season. Brilliant, a critics darling, it had everything mainstream audiences like – adventure, it was exciting, great characters who are superbly acted, stunning visual effects, explosions galore, and it was all true! When Russia flew Sputnik, the Americans were terrified they would reach the moon before they did, so they began a decade long process of finding a way to get man on the moon. The Mercury program was the first in earnest attempt for America to blast an astronaut into space and land them on the planet we see when night falls.
The film opens in the desert in California where test pilots jump into jets and hurtle through the heavens hellbent on being the fastest pilot on the planet. Many die, their photographs decorating the wall of the local drinking establishment, the others look to one man, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) to beat, and when anyone bests his record for speed, each knows it is a matter of time before Yeager climbs into a faster jet and smashes the latest record. As portrayed by the playwright Shepard, Yeager is like a western hero, the good guy in any old cowboy film, who rides his horse, loves his wife, and is the very best at what he does. The title refers to him, I think, but will extend to a group of astronauts later in the film.
Director Phillip Kaufmann did a splendid job giving The Right Stuff a truly epic feel, it is a great big hug to America, but also captured the intimate relationships of the men crammed into a tiny capsule, who then explode into space, each cheering one another on despite the obvious competition between them all. Kaufmann’s accomplishment is one of the great directorial jobs of the decade, yet though the film was widely admired by the Academy, no nomination for Best Director would come his way. Beautifully he creates connections between the astronauts, each wants to be the first to circle the earth, each wants to go further and farther into space, going faster and farther than any man ever has. And each has a litany of admiration and respect for Yeager, who they all know should be among them for he has this right stuff.
The government however decides they want college graduates, clean cut, family men, and having never attended college, Yeager is out. How do you leave arguably the greatest test pilot in the world at that time, out? Makes no sense to me, made no sense to the astronauts of the Mercury program either.
The seven chosen to be astronauts were John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Wally Schirra (Lance Henrikkson), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). Though the story focuses on all the men, specifically the lead characters among the astronauts are Glenn, Cooper, and Grissom. Moving from the Mojave Desert where the test pilots fly, to a training facility, Edwards Air Force base, to prepare the seven men for space, we watch as they poked and prodded, asked to ejaculate into a cup, given painful tests, and the physical and mental endurance tested. Having been selected from several other contenders, they are thrilled for the chance to go into space, but put off by being painted as “spam in a can”, little more than chimps in space as the space capsule does not need an actual pilot. It is Yeager who sets everyone straight about this reminding them the astronauts sit high atop a hugely explosive rocket and explodes into space at speeds never thought possible. It takes a special kind of courage to go on what could be a suicide mission as the men never really know how things will turn out. We watch as many of the rockets built for launch explode or are destroyed on takeoff, often exploding on the pad or just after launch. Another does nothing, just sits there, like the dud it was.
Alan Shepard is the first American to go into space in his short 15-minute journey into the stars. Given a ticker tape parade and a visit to the White House, that same treatment is expected by Gus Grissom, the second into space. But upon landing in the sea, Gus panics and blows the hatch of the capsule causing it to sink into the sea. Ashamed, he tries and justifies what he did, but for him there will be no parade, no visit to the White House, which infuriates his wife, who challenges what he did. Defending him, Yeager says “old Gus did just fine”.
Glenn becomes the first to orbit the earth, but his journey is cut short, from seven orbits to three, when something is expected to be wrong with the heat shields. Before the flight he was dealing with Lyndon Johnson, the Vice President wanting to come into his home and interview his wife, who stuttered badly, and it got worse with stress. He backs her up, and his fellow astronauts back him up, and Johnson stays in car, raging like a child. Glenn plummets to earth, the heat in the capsule intense but he survives and is a national hero.
The mercury astronauts become national heroes and are recognized everywhere they go, now intensely aware they must put on a united front and behave themselves.
Back in the desert, Yeager challenges a Russian for the altitude record, taking up the new Lockheed NF-104A after funding for their program is cut. Bursting through all his speed records he climbs to astonishing heights, finally at the end of the earth’s atmosphere where the black vastness of space and twinkling stars greet him. The jet flames out, and plummets to earth, seeming certain death for the pilot. Incredibly he ejects and the plane is destroyed when crashing to earth. They believe Yeager to be dead, but spot him, heroically walking towards them, injured but not bad enough to be down. The right stuff? Indeed.
Before the film ends we learn that cocky Gordon “Gordo” Cooper would fly higher and faster than any human being ever had, making him for a time the greatest pilot who ever lived, though he knew different. For him, Yeager would always hold that title.
The Right Stuff is a bold, joyous study of the Mercury program, detailing their great successes and terrible tragedies, which includes the death of Gus Grissom in the Apollo program a few years later, burned alive in a capsule malfunction. It is a big, jaunty film that as Pauline Kael described “hums from within”. It had all the ingredients to make it a smash hit with audiences and critics, but this time, only the critics showed up and rave reviews greeted the film. All the major critics loved the film, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel celebrated the picture, Pauline Kael had many fine things to say, all the major and minor critics adored the picture and instantly it was a landmark in American film.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards, incredibly the prime creative artist, the director was snubbed for what would remain one of the greatest directorial achievements of the decade. The eight nominations were for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Shepard), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, while the film won for Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Score, and Best Sound Effects Editing. To me ignoring Kaufmann, a DGA nominee for the film, was downright silly, he so deserved to be there, and the Academy displayed great ignorance in snubbing the filmmaker. The film and Kaufmann were runners up for the New York Film Critics’ Awards, and the picture was a Golden Globe nominee as Best Film (Drama).
Kaufmann superbly captured the intensity of speed in the jets, and even more so in the rockets and the constant, inherent danger to the men. Nothing was more frightening to the wives than to see the grave faced preacher portrayed by the grim Royal Dano exiting a black car outside their home. The image of him sitting in the diner, quietly apart from the others, the pilots, nursing his drink, biding his time, is alarming in its stillness, because we know what he represents.
I am not sure the sense of speed has ever been more beautifully captured than it is here, electrifying in its execution, alarming in how fast those pilots were really going. And the rockets they launch into space, those men were sitting on top of a massive explosion waiting to happen, that is carefully modulated but that we know does not always co-operate. When Yeager speaks of their courage, he knows of what he speaks, and we get it. The look on his face as he sees the stars beyond the clouds, staring into space, a place he will never go, he is in both awe and wonder. One can say the same of Ed Harris as John Glenn, as beautiful performance of a man who knows he is seeing what only a very few men and women will ever truly see. Wonder fills him, a playful sense of awe and even glory, in his marvelous performance.
In a film filled with outstanding performances how was it Shepard was the only male nominee? Ed Harris should have been with him for his clean-cut Boy Scout John Glenn, who sternly tells the others to clean up their acts, stop the cheating, the drinking, they represent something to the kids out there. Dennis Quaid is very good, very funny as the cocky, arrogant Gordo Cooper, who struts around like the cock in the chicken pen, flirting with every female he encounters, making sure everyone knows he is “the greatest pilot to ever live”, while deep down he knows that Yeager is that. Scott Glenn has some nice moments, and Fred Ward as doomed Gus Grissom is superb.
Donald Moffat as Lyndon Johnson is very comical, a comical man who freaks out in anger when he does not get what he wants, which is at that time, access into the Glenn home.
Hailed when it opened as a Great American film, it remains that, and I hope, truly, Blu Ray has brought it into the hearts and minds of so many more than saw it when it first opened. Believe it or not, the film was a box office failure.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.