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, featuring 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.
Chuck 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.
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 toward 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. 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.