The Right Stuff (1983) dir. Philip Kaufman
Starring: Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Sam Shepard
By Alan Bacchus
The Right Stuff is made great because of its unabashed American zeal - a cinematic rendering of the U.S. Mercury Space Program as novelized by Tom Wolfe, that great American novelist/satirist. It’s one of the great films of the 1980s and invisible to age - an era-defining mosaic of American history.
The film begins cleverly by first establishing the legend of Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), the iconic test pilot who first broke the sound barrier. These scenes bristle with American machismo – the aloof loner who risks life and limb for personal glory and the thrill of speed. One day a group of government suits arrive in the Californian desert to recruit for the new Space Program. It’s greeted with ridicule by Yeager and his clique, but also curious adventure from pilots like Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward).
The film quickly moves forward to show us the unbelievable rigors and tests required to choose the first seven American astronauts. The first seven pilots become our seven heroes, with John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom and Alan B. Shepherd (Scott Glenn) as the leaders. For those who don’t know their history, Kaufman builds some nice suspense as to who would be the first American in space and climaxes with Gordon Cooper’s flight, not a historically significant event, but one born from character. Meanwhile Kaufman keeps Yeager in the film occasionally cutting back to his life as a test pilot still pushing the envelope on Earth while his compatriots receive the glory of going into space.
There wasn't much memorable from the '80s, but few could argue against it being the decade of the film score. And The Right Stuff is aided by one of the great ones. Bill Conti (Rocky) won an Oscar for his music, which is as grand and soring as its subject matter – a rarity in today's cinema. It's a mixture of classic orchestral sounds and then-modern synth sounds. Nothing is dated though. In fact, it transcends time.
Kaufman fills the screen with inspired iconic frames. There’s the much referenced long shot of the seven astronauts walking down the hall toward the camera on their way to a press conference. There are numerous shots glorifying Yeager, including his heroic walk back to the base after his final crash. And there are the images of John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and Gordon Cooper jammed in their cockpits looking up into the awe of space.
The special effects are a marvel and completely invisible to the audience. There’s little or no noticeable blue screen work, instead the near lost art of model making, awesome aerial camera work and untraditional light and chemical effects.
The Right Stuff feels like the Nashville of the '80s - an American classic about the power of American spirit, innovation and perseverance.