Movies I Want Everyone to See: “The Right Stuff” (1983)

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Review by Richard Kirkham

Kids of my generation all had the same heroes, astronauts. We watched the launches and splash downs on television both at home and at school. Everyone knew who John Glenn was and the Moon landing in July of 1969 seemed like the greatest day in history. A lot of kids followed test pilots and experimental aircraft like they were ball players with statistics. By the time the Vietnam War was finally run out, and Watergate had drained us of much of the respect we had for our government, the space program had shriveled in size and Skylab had tumbled back to Earth. Astronauts had become at best technicians in the sky and often faceless. In 1979, Tom Wolfe published “The Right Stuff” which reminded us all of what it took to be an American Hero in the Space Race. The rights to the book were snapped up and plans for the movie began. Four years later emerged a film that would be called by many one of the finest films of the decade. It is not a forgotten film, but in many ways it is a neglected film. Readers on a site like this might know the movie intimately, but casual movie audiences are often unfamiliar with movies that lack a cult following or came out before they were born. Let’s see if we can work on that.

“The Right Stuff” is a terrific entertainment that I think too many people think of as a history lesson. It traces the origins of the space program from the test flights of jet planes in the aftermath of the Second World War, to the most dramatic points of the Space Race with the Soviet Union. The fifteen years that span the story do include a number of historical events but they are told in an entertaining way, which while not always accurate may give us a clearer view of history than any textbook is likely to achieve. Part of the problem the film faced from the beginning was the tie in that was made to the political process. A year before the 1984 Presidential election, John Glenn was an active candidate for the Democratic nomination. Time Magazine featured a cover picture, not of Glenn as an astronaut but of actor Ed Harris playing Glenn. Rolling Stone did an in depth article on Glenn that they titled “The Right Stiff”, making a connection between his Boy Scout reputation and the forthcoming film. By the time the movie came out, it was viewed by many as a political story that might have an impact on the election. The ad campaign did little to distance itself from such a perception, right_stuff_ver1featuring as it did, press conference shots and dramatic images of astronauts walking down a hallway plus a couple of posters making the characters out as Mount Rushmore type figures rather than real people.

Phillip Kaufman was partially responsible for Raiders of the Lost Ark and is credited along with George Lucas for the story. He also did the excellent remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in 1978. He was not the first choice for directing this film and it appears that there were some contentious behind the scenes issues when it came to putting the movie together. Academy Award winning screenwriter William Goldman had his script dumped after a meeting with Kaufmann and composer John Barry could not understand what Kaufmann was looking for in the music for the film. He wrote his own version of the script, focusing on elements from Wolfe’s book that seemed to favor the original test pilots out at Edwards Air Force Base as the last of the men who had “The Right Stuff”. In the end he manages to bring the two parallel experiences together, and make all of the featured historical characters have that little bit of personal quality that defines them as real American heroes.

Perhaps his greatest directorial decision had to do with the way in which the flight scenes would be visualized on screen. Eschewing the use of animation and computer technology to a large degree, the flight sequences were largely done using techniques that had been pioneered during the days of Buck Rodgers in the 1930s. Models were flown on wires, chemicals were ignited on the outside of models, real jet flames were fitted into wooden life sized models of test craft. Real footage of rocket flights was combined with material produced for the film to give life to the successes and failures of the early space program.

the-right-stuff-shepherdChuck Yeager, the man who broke the sound barrier is the main hero in the film, despite the fact that he is limited in the amount of screen time his character receives.  Yeager is the real deal, last year on the 65th anniversary of the sound barrier breakthrough, he repeated the experience, at age 89. In the movie he is portrayed by playwright and actor Sam Shepard. The part earned him an Academy Award Nomination as a quiet man who had a keener sense of the destiny of manned space flight than many of those in the space program itself. (Look for the real Chuck Yeager in the bit part of Fred, the barman at the Happy Bottom Riding Club.) The other breakout role belongs to Ed Harris playing John Glenn.  We get to understand Glenn’s quiet charisma through Harris’ subtle work. The one scene where he breaks out in a human conflict works because he has been such a steady and quiet presence through most of the film up until that point.

The movie is packed with wonderful actors doing excellent work. Scott Glenn and Fred Ward are two actors I am always happy to see because I remember them from this movie. Glenn plays first American in space Alan Shepard. In addition to Tom Wolfe’s book, I have read several biographies and autobiographies of the astronauts of the 1960s, Shepard’s “Moon Shot” is a great read and I saw Scott Glenn in every story that Shepard shared in his contributions. Gus Grissom was one of the first American casualties in the space age, and I would like to think he was the surly yet good humored man as played by Ward. The other astronauts get brief moments, with Dennis Quaid’s  Gordo Cooper receiving nearly as much time as the big three of Harris, Glenn and Ward.  Fans of “Aliens” , “The Terminator” and one of my favorites “The Quick and the Dead” will be able to pick out Lance Henriksen as Wally Schirra, who is mostly background for the Mercury Seven.   Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer have small roles as NASA advance men, David Clennon is a publicist for the Air Force, and Donald Moffat a very familiar character actor plays L.B.J.. Royal Dano, the sonorously voiced character actor who did the voice of Abraham Lincoln for the Disney attraction, has a part as the harbinger of death.rstuff06

Let’s not slight the ladies either. The cast of women who play Mrs. Honorable astronaut is equally impressive. The hugely undervalued Pamela Reed has one of her best parts as Cooper’s long suffering wife. Veronica Cartwright who has worked in the business since she was a child (The Birds and Leave it to Beaver) has her best role outside of Alien playing Betty Grissom. Barbara Hershey is beautiful and tough as the woman that Chuck Yeager names the X-1 after. The wife of the cinematographer was cast in the part of shy and stuttering Annie Glenn, Mary Jo Deschanel is also the mother of Zoey Deschanel the “doe eyed It girl” of the decade. Oh yeah, Kim Stanley and Kathy Baker are also in the cast, it was Baker’s first cinema role and Stanley’s last.

What all these talented people managed to do was to bring history to life. Not the history of a textbook but the everyday drama of people who happen to be living through history. The seven Mercury Astronauts became famous before they ever went into space, but they were men who had strengths and weaknesses like any one else. Those characteristics are integrated into the film in a very effective way. The tender scenes between the Glenns feel real even though we were not privy to them in history. The struggle of the Grissoms, after Gus’s capsule is lost, may be exaggerated but it feels like a slice of reality television as we watch them cope with a less than perfect mission. Most of the astronauts ended up in second and third marriages and we get to see how the strain of being an American Icon could contribute to a failed marriage. The movie is filled with humor as well. Some of that humor is of the gallows type as the astronauts face the dangers that were space exploration. Some of the humor is a little juvenile but reflects the way they tried to blow off the pressures they are faced with. The Air Force song and Marine Hymn have never competed in a more hysterical way than in the medical evaluation scenes in the middle of the film.

There are plenty of technical accolades to spread around as well. The costumes and sets were top notch. The sound and editing won the Academy Awards for that year. Bill Conti who is best known for writing the “Rocky” theme, won the Academy Award for best score for this movie. It is a somewhat controversial decision because much of the music was cribbed from other classical composers. Conti  made sure that all of them were credited so that he was not accused of plagiarism. The theme he came up with is integrated with the other music seamlessly and that probably accounts for his winning the award. Just as an aside, he was the conductor of the Academy orchestra who got ignored/dissed by Julia Roberts the night she won her Academy Award for Erin Brockovich.

There are some incredibly iconic moments in the film. There may have been earlier uses of the shot, but this was the first time I remember seeing the men walking abreast 9.-The-Right-Stuff-Philip-Kaufman-1983toward the camera shot in this manner. Clearly when they are all in their flight suits and helmets, moving down the long hallway, we have some men on a mission. Those men can be seen to be serious. The shot has been done a thousand times since and it is parodied quite often as well but this was the first time I can say I was impressed by the idea. I won’t say it was invented here but I will say it was perfected.

Again, I don’t know that it first appeared here but it was the earliest vivid image I can think of of a man walking away from a crash or explosion and not turning back.Chuck Sam Shepard’s Yeagar barely escapes from a fiery crash and he walks across the desert floor toward the rescue vehicle coming for him, he has a determined look and never glances backwards. Levon Helm, the drummer and sometimes singer for “The Band”, played Yeager’s buddy Ridley  gets a great come back line that tells us who really has the “Right Stuff” as the ambulance pulls up. Helm also did the narration of the opening and closing lines of the movie and his voice is perfect for the tone of the film.

Had the movie been a bigger financial success, I’m sure it would have mopped up at awards time. The lack of box office tainted the film a bit so that it is critical success that defines it today rather than awards. Those of you who have read my material before know that “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Jaws”  are my two favorite films. This would probably make my top ten list most days. More important however is the fact that this is the favorite film of my spouse of 33 years. Had I not made this recommendation I would have to answer to her. “The Right Stuff” is on regular rotation at our house with a couple of viewings a year. You should revisit it if it has been a while, and if you have never seen it before, what is wrong with you?

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.

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32 thoughts on “Movies I Want Everyone to See: “The Right Stuff” (1983)

  1. Mate, that is probably the best write-up on a film I have read. Well done you! I guess it helps if the movie that you have written about is also one of my favourite films of all time. It is a classic! It would take a very hard man not to get a lump in his throat to see Sam Shepard striding away from his crashed plane, his helmet tucked under his arm, his face burnt black from said helmet catching fire! A wonderfully heartbreaking performance from him. He is a vastly under used and under rated actor.
    A sad part too in the film, when the young pilots/astronauts (mainly Quaid) saying how they would like to get their photos on the wall of the bar like the other pilots, not knowing that they are the photos of dead test pilots.
    A truly wonderful film. I have a copy of it on DVD and their are a couple of very good “making of” documentaries on it. They show how special effects were done before CGI took over.
    There is a small part of the film where Quaid’s character (Gordo Cooper) goes to Australia to help track one of the missions. There is an excellent Australian film called “The Dish” which covers similar territory. It is highly recommended!
    Great stuff!

    • The scene with Ward and Quaid at the bar in Pancho’s was one of those grim pieces of humor I was mentioning. I saw the first half hour of “The Dish” several years ago but got pulled away for some family thing and never got back to it. Thanks for the reminder, I need to seek it out and start again. Glad you liked the film and the write up.

    • As memory serves me (I’m older so sometimes it fails) I read the Time (or maybe Newsweek) cover story with the Photo of Harris while waiting in line to see “Return of the Jedi” on Hollywood Blvd. Thanks for the compliment and you are welcome for the reminder.

  2. Eh. It’s not like its about something important….
    ;)

    First of all, great write up.

    Second, great film, one that had a lasting impact on me. I’ve had the honor of working with some of the actual people featured in this film, Chuck Yeager, Scott Crossfield (X-15 test pilot) John and Annie Glenn, Scott Carpenter, and Wally Schirra, to name a few, and, with the exception of John Glenn, I’m always surprised they dont look more like the actor’s who played them in this movie. But the casting of this movie was so spot on perfect, and the performances so good that the performers have almost eclipsed the real life Astronauts. I once had the opportunity to shoot an interview with Jim Lovell and Tom Hanks, and half their “off mike” conversation was how great the performances in “the Right Stuff” were. Lovell in particular was a big fan of the film. John Glenn once told me he wished they hadn’t portrayed him as “Such a boy scout” because he always wished he looked cooler. (!!!) Annie Glenn smiled when he said that and said he was even more of a boy scout than they showed and they laughed at what was obviously an inside joke to them.

    I also had a lot of fun working with Levon Helm, having him reprise his narration of a doc we made for the retirement of Astronaut John Young (on youtube: http://youtu.be/Z1SrNI_ohV8). Helm was a great person with the perfect voice for this film.

    It’s definitely a Movie I’m Glad I’ve Seen! (MIGIS!)

    • I’d say you are a lucky son of a gun but I know hard work must have had more to do with your getting that opportunity than any luck. It’s great to hear that they got the spirit right in the performances. I love the John and Annie Glenn story you shared and it sounds just like them in the movie, so it seems they succeeded there. I’m going to look at the retirement doc right now. Your comments here are most welcome and they make the world a smaller place in the way most of us would want. Thanks for posting, MIGIS is a good term. I may steal it down the road.

    • One of the reasons I write about these films here is that I think they sometimes get lost. They are often seen as good or even great films but when people think of classics, they don’t always get put on someone’s list. So glad there are fans of this great piece of Americana and cinema. Thanks.

    • Another overlap down the road. I always say to people who have not seen a movie that I love, “You are so lucky you get to experience this for the first time.” Go get em Morgan and let’s make everyone lucky.

  3. I thought the best aspect of the screenplay was how it intentionally played down the heroic aspects of the Mercury astronauts: they followed a chimp into space; circus performers were also considered; their only control was insisting on a window in the capsule. This made it clear who the real hero was–Chuck Yeagar, who broke the sound barrier with a busted arm. And the strip tease seems like a metaphor for the Mercury program, now that I think of it. Thanks Richard, nice review. I didn’t know about the technical aspects. They come across very real.

    • Glad to see you made it here Jim. I know Kaufman was focusing on Yeager but I liked the fact that he puts those words in Yeager’s mouth, ” Monkeys? 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. Ol’ Gus, he did all right.”
      Fan Dance, Sally Rand would take umbrage at being called a stripper.

  4. I love this film. I think it’s one of the best films ever made and certainly a very underrated one. Notably as it did amazing work with the visual effects and the story about what went on in the making of the U.S. space program. I was a space freak as a kid and thought this was the best film ever at that time. I still would put it in my never-ending list of the best films ever.

  5. Fantastic MIGIS! Great choice for an inspirational & entertaining historical flick on USA Astronaut group 1. Really dug Gelf’s 2 cents and so impressed in the Space Royalty with whom he’s had the pleasure to meet & work; solid JYoung pic too. Nice highlight Richard; I’ll have to revisit this soon. :-)

    Chuck Yeager: “Anybody that goes up in the damn thing is gonna be Spam in a can.” – The Right Stuff (’83)

  6. Great work, Richard!

    Probably the best adaptation of Tom Wolfe on film. Superb dead ringer cast led by Scott Glenn and Ed Harris. Wonderful ensemble work with the “Man or Monkey?” debate and the final roll out of the Mercury capsule.

    With notable time devoted to the wives as well.

    Exceptional model work that holds its own against high priced at the time CGI.

  7. Sorry it took me so long to get around to this one buddy… looks like its doing ok for itself, though. ;)

    Great flick, and a really nice piece on it. I should put a great debate up there between like this one, and Apollo 13. I think 13 would take it, but they’re both great. :D

    • A debate feature would be great. I don’t know how someone would choose, but I’d enjoy listening to them try to explain it. It might also push all those who said they want to revisit or see it for the first time an additional motive to do so.

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