- Movie Rating -

The Right Stuff (1983)

| October 21, 1983

It is perhaps impossible to consider now, looking back through the lens of our success with the moon landing, what a terribly dangerous exercise space travel was, and still is.  The Right Stuff illustrates this right from his beginning as we meet the test pilots at California’s Muroc Army Air Field but also a strange dark specter of a man who seems to hang around the bar where they spend their off hours.  He’s a minister, you see, waiting for one of the pilots to fail.  When their efforts are defeated, he steps in to say a few words at their funeral.

Based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 bestselling book, The Right Stuff chronicles the end of the era of the lonely solo pilots born from the legacy of The Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh and the beginning of a space race that pitted us against the Russians to be the first country to get a man into orbit. One could argue that the space race would never have gotten anywhere were it not for the Cold War. Certainly, the government machinations were in place to beat the Russians into space and, very possibly, the sheer awesomeness of the accomplishment was the furthest thing from their minds. I am happy to say that the movie never shies away from that assumption.

The film begins, beautifully, in the Arizona desert where a group of air force test pilots are housed. They dress like cowboys and talk about the thrill of the speed of their aircraft almost like an extreme sport. Chief among them is Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) who, unlike his fellow pilots, doesn’t brag but lets those actions speak for themselves.  He sort of stands apart from the other pilots and they seem to regard him as something of a legend.  Among the pilots is a competition to see who can conquer the “demon in the sky” – the sound barrier which has sent so many pilots their deaths that the local watering hole has a wall of fame for those who have perished and an Air Force minister (Royal Dano) who hangs around the bar like the grim reaper waiting for his next funeral.

When Yeager breaks the sound barrier it opens the door to a recruitment of pilots to train to become astronauts. While the men, John Glenn (Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), Wally Schirra (Lance Henrikson), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin) and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) are chosen for the Mercury program, Yeager retreats to the background, remaining a test pilot. At first, none of the men see this new program as anything but a media freak show.  Yeager doesn’t see the point of having pilot in the program when their skills aren’t really required.  Ordered to simply sit tight while the capsule flies itself he refers to the volunteers as “spam in a can”.  Thus far in the program, only monkeys have been involved in space flight and it is hard for anyone to see the men as being otherwise.

The scientists were perfectly happy to have monkeys in the cockpit but the race for space needed human beings.  That led to a bizarre recruitment process in which it is suggested by two recruiters (Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum) the possibility of acrobats or stock car racers or even surfers.  The idea of pilots was initially sidelined because the capsules could fly themselves and really required no piloting skills at all.  The men don’t see it that way and begin to fight for control of a program that is putting their lives on the line.

That battle culminates in a wonderful scene in which the astronauts get a first look at their capsule and ask the German scientist Verner Von Braun why the capsule doesn’t have a window or a hatch with explosive bolts. Von Braun explains that there is no reason for the occupant to have a window (that’s a lack of imagination at work).  Yet Grissom and Glenn pull a sort of blackmail by explaining to Von Braun that without them there is no program and without a program there is no media coverage, and without media coverage there is no government funding and without government funding there is no program.  “No bucks, no Buck Rogers”, they tell him.

The media coverage comes becomes a vital element for the program.  The Russians were doing their testing in secret but the team at NASA needed to be able to prove that the public was behind them, and they could only do that with news coverage.  The space program was competing with more important government programs and could end up having their funding cut if the public lost interest (which, in the wake of the moon landing in 1969, is exactly what happened).  Therefore these pilots know they have NASA over a barrel.

The publicity machine works in the case of John Glenn when he survives a near disaster while orbiting the earth, but it comes back to bit Gus Grissom.  During a scheduled flight that would carry Glenn around the earth eight times, a problem erupts with his capsule that causes him to have to cut his trip short.  He uses his piloting skills to bring himself home and avert disaster.  This is proof that the program needs pilots, not monkeys.  Glenn becomes a hero in the eyes of the media but later, Grissom is made to look like a heel when, during his return trip, he panics and opens the escape hatch on the capsule too early.  Despite evidence to the contrary Grissom claims it was a glitch.

Kaufman is very interested in the personalities of the pilots, the most intriguing is Grissom who is seen competent but possesses a fragile ego. After the press mercilessly reports on his mishap in the capsule, he says over and over that it was a glitch. Something inside his emotions is bruised and isn’t helped when his wife Betty (Veronica Cartwright) complains that she won’t be able to have dinner with the First Lady. Glenn on the other hand comes off as an All-American hero. He is the proud vocal spokesman who takes the reigns during a crucial press conference. These men mature over the course of their adventure and what they thought was a silly prospect turns to a feeling of pride that they are representing their country.

The men realize that they are alone in a select group, the only people on the planet who have seen the curvature of the earth, the majesty of the heavens. There is a perfect moment late in the film when the astronauts are guests at a party thrown by President Lyndon Johnson (Donald Mofit).  There, in the glow of Sally Rand’s fan dance, the men sit in the audience and turn to look at one another.  What they know is that they have shared an experience that no others on earth ever have, the experience of going into space.  It is a communal experience for them and they know their experience is special.

I think The Right Stuff is more important now than it was when it was released. What these Mercury astronauts accomplished was the opening of a door that led eventually to a man walking on the moon, but they created a media frenzy that seemed to drop off once that awesome feat had been achieved. After the Apollo missions came a different kind of exploration, the kind done with machines not men. There was Voyager, Hubble and the Mars Rover which gave us incredible imagery of our own universe. They show us the universe but what is missing is the sheer thrill of having a human being – one of our own – reach out and touch the heavens. There is a moment at the end when Gordo Cooper looks out his capsule window and smiles “Oh what a heavenly light!”. You just can’t get that kind of exhilaration from a machine.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1983) View IMDB Filed in: Drama