Review: The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

[originally published in The Weekly, November 9, 1983]

The Right Stuff is the biggest, brightest, busiest movie of the year, exhilarating in its largeness of spirit, in the sheer physical scope of its achievement, and in the breadth and complexity of its ambitions. It’s also an exasperatingly difficult film to review, for its strengths and weaknesses frequently lie side-by-each, and although the former far outweigh the latter, both must be acknowledged.

Anyone setting out to make a film from Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff faces an awesome challenge: how to take 16 years’ worth of aviation history teeming with event, detail, character, and information, and shape it into a coherent, let alone an engrossing, movie. In this, writer-director Philip Kaufman has stunningly succeeded. Against all odds, unintimidated by the shifting currents of history and changing fashions in American heroism, his Right Stuff rushes along a breathlessly clear narrative line for 3 hours and 13 minutes. It’s a joyride with substance, the sort of experience that leaves even classy kiddie-kar entertainments like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi looking trivial by comparison.

How could any confected material compare with The Right Stuff‘s real-life adventurism? What comic-book heroes could stand up alongside guys like Chuck Yeager, Scott Crossfield, and the others assembled in the “weird mad-monk squadron” at Edwards Air Force Base, on the roof of the high desert in California? In the late Forties and early Fifties, these men committed themselves to “chase the demon” that lived in the clouds, just beyond every unbroken record—the sound barrier, then Mach 2, then Mach 2.1…. In shuddering rocketplanes, they pushed against the envelope that contained man’s fragile ecosystem, and reached for the outermost speed in horizontal air travel.

Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager

There seemed to be no place for them in the Space Age that got under way in the late Fifties. For the US government and NASA, desperate to find the likeliest specimens to hurl against the Russians, most of these wartime aces “didn’t fit the profile,” so there was a frantic effort to identify or develop a new breed of test pilot more disposed to play an obedient role in the space program. From this search emerged the seven Mercury astronauts—equally valiant, perhaps equally talented, men whose ordained lot was to serve as national heroes while at the same time realizing that, for all scientific intents and purposes, they were interchangeable with laboratory monkeys.

This much is history. But Wolfe’s book had demonstrated that there’s history and there’s “history”—the reality of humankind’s aspirations and achievements versus the public record of them. Kaufman elected to undertake this theme along with that of epic heroism. His Right Stuff, like Wolfe’s, scathingly describes how that public record, in the case of the first astronauts, was engineered by politicians locked into a Cold War mentality, managed by the governmental equivalent of a public-relations agency, and constantly written and rewritten by a journalistic corps eager to set their own seal on a legend in the making.

The triumphant irony celebrated by both book and film is that, behind the screen of glitz and rhetoric, of manufactured pseudo-event and US Grade A balderdash, something legitimately magnificent was taking place after all. The film in particular most winningly persuades us of that magnificence through its canny exploration of character, and of characters. It conveys history with the validity and straightforward drive of a documentary. But it does so without sacrificing the excitement and emotional power that can be attained only by telling a story, a story with specific, vividly knowable people who do something else with their lives besides making history.

***

Put it another way: character itself is “the right stuff” that differentiates Kaufman’s heroes from the manipulators of official legend who surround them. After steeping the viewer in the heady atmosphere of mythos at Edwards AFB for several reels, Kaufman ventures a radical shift in tone. The American government is portrayed as a boardroom full of bumblers crawling about in the dark on hands and knees, swapping anti-Commie epithets while looking for an electric plug that has pulled out of its socket. NASA’s recruiters are personified in a Mutt’n’Jeff team (Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer) declaiming in ill-informed flatspeak and generally behaving as though trapped in a protracted Saturday Night Live skit. Once the Mercury astronauts have been selected, Kaufman introduces a “permanent press corps” who jitter about the periphery of events like spastic marionettes while a lunatic jungle-insect noise swarms on the soundtrack.

Some of this is funny, much of it is sophomorically silly, and some is just too much. (Did Shearer and Goldblum, interviewing Alan Shepard on a sea-tossed aircraft carrier, really have to be photographed with flecks of vomit clinging to their collars?) No matter how deserving the targets, Kaufman the satirist, doing his utmost to invent cinematic analogues for Wolfe’s sardonic shticks, often plunges into overkill.

Yet one hesitates to pontificate too absolutely on this tactic. The Right Stuff is a high-energy movie, held on course by the fierce tensions of counterpoint. Questions of fidelity to Wolfe aside, no solemn valorization of the Mercury space voyagers and their Earthside predecessors could possibly have soared as high as Kaufman’s screwball epic does. Its satirical components speak less to hipster complacency than crazy glee; they’re as bracing, in their cut-up way, as the images of Chuck Yeager tilting with the demon in the stratosphere, or John Glenn’s blazing reentry after the first orbiting of Earth by an American. Finally, these giddy assaults on Establishment dignity prove crucial in defining a changed America in which the Mercury 7 had to discover a new way of being heroes.

***

What fascinates me most about the tortuous aesthetics of Kaufman’s The Right Stuff is the way he reaches into movie classicism for viable talismans of rectitude. While the film’s comic fall guys are sketched in a mode endemic to the TV Age, the dynamics that define and bind—and, in binding, exalt—the Edwards AFB pilots and their Mercury successors are pure movie code: code in the sense of specialized communication, and code as a measure of ethical conduct.

Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper

Kaufman, who once made a relentlessly revisionist Western (The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid), explicitly reaches back to the genre’s unadulterated phase to strike his initial keynote. Out of the sunrise, Chuck Yeager rides on horseback through the Mojave cacti to get his first look at the X-l rocketplane, the fire-breathing steed that may carry him through the sound barrier. As Yeager, actor-playwright Sam Shepard contributes the sort of laconic, effortlessly cinemagenic presence that irresistibly recalls Gary Cooper: this is the American Hero. Late in the film, after Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson) has temporarily ascended to “the top of the pyramid” by breaking Mach 2, he silently hoists his beer in salute to Yeager, and Yeager, across the flyboys’ tavern and with his back turned, lifts his own glass of whisky above his shoulder in response. He’s like the good-guy gunslinger in an old horse-opera who has eyes in the back of his head to spot an enemy, or a worthy rival.

Kaufman plays this movie-archetype game throughout the film. His screenplay succeeds in drawing so many characters so vividly, despite the limited screentime each can be accorded, by building on taglines of dialogue and behavior. (Nice instance of convergence measuring the growth of the astronauts’ emotional solidarity: Mr. Clean Marine John Glenn, in a moment of frustration, referring to the Russians as “those … darn Commies,” the earthy Gus Grissom responding with his all-purpose “Fuckenay, bubba,” and Glenn immediately agreeing, “That’s right!”) This is an efficient, effective way to write movies. It also happens to parallel the style in which The Right Stuff‘s heroes communicate.

Another of Kaufman’s signature strategies is to deploy that most venerable and intrinsically cinematic means of communication, The Look. In the hilarious scene of the Mercury astronauts’ first presentation to the press, the more irreverent members of the team steal sardonic glances at one another as John Glenn (Ed Harris) gets carried away with Boy Scout enthusiasm and just can’t stop talking to the avid audience. His confreres begin to get the notion that this public-hero business might be a hell of a kick, and chime in with fulsome platitudes of their own. The scene has a more sober rhyme at the climax of the film. During an appallingly gaudy Texas barbecue presided over by Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffat), with the superannuated Sally Rand doing a solemn fandance for the multitude, the Mercury 7 again look around at one another, sharing a private recognition in the midst of a public performance. We can’t know what they’re thinking; we know only that it’s theirs alone.

Kaufman’s editing at this point, as so often in the film, is an inextricable combination of sublimity and oversimplification. Half the cuts dictate pat responses, half of them are instinct with mystical grandeur. Here, as at other key points, Kaufman defies mere earthbound time-and-space logic to imply that the astronauts not only share a privileged perspective on the hullabaloo at the center of which they stand—they also somehow know that Chuck Yeager, a thousand miles away, is setting his life on the line in his most extreme and most private confrontation with “the demon.” The greatest flier of them all, who didn’t fit the profile, launches himself and his plane at the empyrean. No plane can get him there. But as he runs out of ceiling and starts to fall, Yeager glimpses the starry vastness of space just beyond the last wisps of cloud. That’s as fine a moment as the movies have it in them to yield. That’s the right stuff.

Copyright © 1983 by Richard T. Jameson

The astronauts vs. the scientists