The Right Stuff (1983)
Breaking the sound barrier
The Right Stuff is an epic account of the real-life personas who broke the sound barrier and took part in the US’s first forays into space. Sam Shepard plays Chuck Yeager, a test pilot who signed up for the dangerous job of piloting the X-1, an experimental aircraft built for the purpose of breaking the sound barrier, at Edwards Air Force Base, California in 1947.
After a hair-raising flight he succeeds, inspiring a whole slew of “flyboys” to try and beat him. Amongst these are his direct rival Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson), the first pilot to break Mach 2 (in 1953), as well as cocky upstarts Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), who arrive on the base with wives and families in tow. However, all who break Chuck’s records without getting on the wall of the base bar (an “honour” reserved for those who don’t survive the attempts), soon find that their record doesn’t last long - as he manages to beat it each time.
The Great Space Race
In 1957, the US government receives news that the Soviets have launched their first space flight, known as Sputnik. This rattles them into expediting their own space program. When looking for would-be astronauts, they settle on those who boldly push the envelope: the test pilots. While Chuck himself refuses to participate - “it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission” - Gordon and Gus decide to sign up. They make it through the grueling training and are joined by Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), John Glenn (Ed Harris), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen) to become the first team of 7 US astronauts.
The film follows the ups and downs of the technical hitches in the program, the triumphs of breaking new frontiers, the strains of personal relationships and the surrounding political climate.
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A surprise box office flop
Producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler picked up the rights to adapt Tom Wolfe’s book in 1979. Both Michael Ritchie and John G. Avildsen (who worked with the duo on Rocky) were attached as director at various points. However, the job ultimately went to Philip Kaufman, who had become hot property after directing Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Wanderers (1979), as well as working on the back story behind Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with George Lucas.
The $27 million budget was stumped up by The Ladd Company. Unfortunately, it only made around $21 million back, adding to a roster of box office disappointments and outright disasters which would sink them shortly afterward. This was despite it receiving some of the finest reviews of the year, as well as winning four Oscars and being nominated for a further four.
A deserved classic
The Right Stuff really deserved all of its plaudits and should have been seen by a much larger audience than it got at the time. It’s a rare movie where every major aspect - script, directing, performances, special effects, cinematography, editing and score - is exemplary. However, the prime factor that makes The Right Stuff so great is that it isn’t just a dry historical lecture. It manages to be a hugely entertaining and even somewhat transcendental cinematic experience. Other docudrama filmmakers take note: this is how it should be done.
Shifting cinematic tone
As with Kaufman’s previous film The Wanderers, there is a regularly shifting tone here - except that the genre palette is considerably broader still. Parts are played for crude comedy, as the trainee astronauts are asked to give sperm samples or are dragged through corridors with colostomy bags by a hulking attendant. Other parts go for shrewd satire as the astronaut’s long-suffering wives are asked to put on beaming faces for the press and dignitaries. There are beautifully shot, dialog-sparse 2001-style meditative scenes as Yeager rides his horse through the desert near the base under the orange hue of the setting sun, or during the trippy imagery of the flights. The breaking of frontiers is shown symbolically with the horse-riding harkening back to the spirit of the Old West being juxtaposed with the spectacular effects of flying machines breaking either the sound barrier or Earth’s atmosphere.
At the same time, there is a breathless sense of suspense as fleeting moments occur when it seems our heroes may not make it. Kaufman manages a trick of hanging the viewer’s hearts in their mouths just long enough as aircraft go into dizzying tailspins, along with effective use of the presence and absence of sounds, to imbue a palpable sense of danger.
An impressive cast
The performances are outstanding all round. Dennis Quaid and Fred Ward develop a wonderfully cocky camaraderie together; Veronica Cartwright and Pamela Reed flesh out their roles colourfully as the disenchanted distaff side to the former duo; Scott Glenn has never been better than his drily flippant work here as Alan Shepard; Ed Harris brings a granite-like sense of grounded authority to the rag-tag group of astronauts. Best of all is Sam Shepard who carries an unassuming majesty as a man who strives to be the best but lets his actions speak louder than any boastful words could. He is clearly saddled with an awareness of his own mortality despite his desire to (literally) fly in the face of danger.
While The Right Stuff does celebrate the risk-taking of these men and glory in the exhilaration of their trade, it portrays them, and their spouses, as human beings - far more fallible and emotionally complex than the media and government grandstanding of the time would allow.
Runtime: 193 mins
Dir: Philip Kaufman
Script: Philip Kaufman, from a novel by Tom Wolfe
Starring: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, Lance Henriksen, Donald Moffat, Scott Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer