[originally published in The Weekly, November 9, 1983]
The Right Stuffis 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 ReturnoftheJedi looking trivial by comparison.
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
At times one feels that the elemental motions induced by the instinct to survive almost dictate a pace of their own in this movie about the initial contact between a group of nomadic Eskimos and the English-speaking world back in the days when New Bedford sailors scoured the northern reaches of the continent in search of whales. There is a certain natural sense of episodic movement in the migration of a people from one village site to another as the food supply runs low and new, richer hunting grounds must be found. There is an ease and unhurriedness in the way the camera lingers on the things Eskimos really do (or did) with their time which avoids being static because it’s really pretty interesting, whether we are witnessing the hunting of seals or the building of an igloo or the ritual pairing-off of couples following an evening of vaguely familiar-seeming games and frenzied dancing by a few of the local boys decked out in antlers. Even without the story of three sailors who are stranded somewhere in Baffin Bay and subsequently rescued by Eskimos, this would make an engaging documentary on a foreign culture; and in fact it is so difficult not to be genuinely moved by the warmth and humanness which flows so generously from TheWhiteDawn that one is tempted to believe it a better film than, perhaps, it is.
By all rights, the 1946 homecoming drama The Best Years of Our Lives (Warner, Blu-ray) should have been another well intentioned film left to the dated dustbins of history, but World War II vet William Wyler (working from an original Robert Sherwood script) put more soul into this picture than anything else in his career. Clocking in close to three hours, the characters creep up on you: stiff Dana Andrews whose displaced working class joe can’t seem to find himself again, moral authority Fredric March as a family man and frustrated bank manager, and Harold Russell, a real life paraplegic war survivor as a kid dealing with the emotional and physical challenges of life without arms. They come from different services (Army, Navy, Air Force), different ranks, and different home life situations (upper class husband and father, middle class family son, working class newlywed adult), covering a lot of bases of experience. All they have in common is the same hometown and the same ride home. They get to know one another in the nose of a transport plane as they hop their way across the country. It’s enough to give them a camaraderie and a connection that even their loved ones back home can’t fill.
It’s easy to see the script designed as a “statement” about the experience of the returning veteran and the state of the nation after the end of the war, and there is something sturdy and square about the film, but it fits the subject matter and the gravity of the film. Wyler takes his time to let the characters out slowly, feeling their way back into lives they don’t quite fit into anymore. March won an Oscar for his witty portrayal of a man whose values have been knocked off-balance by the war. Though he’s the least scarred by the war, he’s the first to lubricate his discomfort at social gatherings, getting drunk to avoid facing serious emotional situations or distasteful business obligations. It’s not like he’s an alcoholic (or at least Wyler isn’t quite making that case) but it’s also not as cute as Nick and Nora at cocktail time. He’s getting drunk to escape in a way his buddies do not. And Russell won two Academy Awards for his debut as the easy-going, self-effacing vet who uses humor to deflect pity before it gets spoken but can’t help but feel like he’s come back less a man than he was – the only performer to ever win two Oscars for a single performance. But it’s Andrews who gets the everyman part, the confident American guy who made officer and commanded men under fire yet comes home to find nothing but the same dead-end service job waiting for him. He doesn’t want much, just a chance, and even that seems out of reach in the town the passed him by.
Wyler and Sherwood resist any temptation for flashback illustrations (the closest they get is Andrews’ recurring nightmare of a bomber crash, all noise and shadows under his cries) and Wyler is very tender with their experiences. We twice see Russell’s ritual of removing his prosthetic arms and it is a quietly humbling experience that, when it’s over, leaves him dependent on others. Russell exhibits no self-consciousness in the scene, no self pity. It’s about vulnerability, helplessness, trust, and his willingness to be so naked in front of the camera invests an otherwise amiable performance with a life that the movies only previously showed in terms of horror or tragedy. Here, it’s just life and it goes on.
Interestingly enough, Myrna Loy gets top billing for a supporting role (and frankly, she is given little else to do, though she does it with grace, humor, and mature sexiness so little seen in the movies in any era), and Cathy O’Donnell, who went on to become the quintessential fragile or broken innocent of film noir, gets “introducing” credit. And while Virginia Mayo gets a rare dramatic role as Andrews’ fun-loving wife disappointed to find the dashing officer she married now a mere working class civilian, it’s bubbly Teresa Wright as the headstrong daughter of March and Loy who takes a decisive role in their drama.
It won seven Oscars in all, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The Blu-ray debut is very handsome (Blu-ray can give black-and-white movies such visual depth!) and features a video introduction by Virginia Mayo and interviews with Mayo and Teresa Wright.
The Right Stuff (Warner, Blu-ray), Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed portrait of the original NASA astronauts, is *the* American epic of the last great frontier and a genuinely romantic take on the first generation of space cowboys. In fact, we know that Kaufman’s heart lays with test pilot cowboy Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard as a man who rides horses when he’s not punching a hole through the sound barrier. The three-hour-plus film, narrated by Levon Helm in a storyteller’s drawl as if recounting a myth, follows the story of the race to claim the skies from the competitive culture of the test pilots in New Mexico to the rush to beat the Soviets to the moon after they put the first man in space. The shift in national priorities (“You know what makes those ships go? Funding!”) and public attention left Yeager and the jet cowboys behind and gave us new American heroes: the astronauts. And while Kaufman clearly reveres Yeager, he celebrates the courage and the commitment of the original astronauts and gives them their own mythic resonance.
[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
Let’s get the suspense out of the way first. I’ve been taken over: I came to the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a purist’s proper disdain for anyone who presumes to redo a classic movie, but as I sat brooding in the darkness, Phil Kaufman’s 1978 version put out its tendrils and pretty soon everything seemed just fine and why should I go around getting upset over little things? Not that the new Invasionis going to displace the old for me. No way. I think the Don Siegel version is the better movieâ€”more seamlessly, “artlessly” accomplished than the present model, and the more inspired work. But after a tacky special-effects opening (where Siegel needed nothing but a subjective descent through roiling clouds), Kaufman’s version persuasively asserts its right to life as an imaginative reflection of our time, just as Siegel’s insidious “sleeper” stands as a quintessential Fifties experience. The makers of the ’56 film were reeling under the twin impacts of Dwight Eisenhower and Joe McCarthy. Their movie played on both the cozy lure of middle-class conformity and the nagging suspicion that that bastard in the next yard or at the next desk or in the next writing cubicle at the studioâ€”indeed, all those bastardsâ€”had in mind to do you dirt in a manner you hadn’t quite figured out yet. Jack Finney’s story about pod-grown organisms usurping the identities of everyone in a small California town and reducing them to all-alike, emotionless neuters yielded a powerful metaphor for a more mundane loss of humanity. Cold War buffs were perfectly free to read in a paranoid allegory of Communist takeover: they were said to be everywhere, and wouldn’t they look like any normal, healthy, right-thinking Amurkan, same as you or me, and I’m not so sure about you…?
[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Scribbling a few notes in 1975 after seeing Phil Kaufman’s The White Dawn, I wrote: “Culture conflict is a key element in Kaufman’s work. TheGreat Northfield, Minnesota Raiddeals with the incursion of a group of relative primitives into the bustling world of a growing industrial civilization. The tension created between the seemingly incongruous occurrence of a baseball game in a Western and the primitive, disorganized conduct of the game itself echoes the tension of the film as a whole: The organized constructs of society are taking shape, but not yet rigid; the violent, free-for-all way of life of the Wild West is dying, but not easily. The manic fantasy world of the legendary James-Younger gang of outlaws is brought dangerously close to our own world when someone says of the baseball game, ‘It’s the new national pastime,’ and Cole Younger replies, ‘Our only national pastime is shootingâ€”and it always will be.’ Primitive violence and low humor are juxtaposed with the steam engine and bicycle world of pre-contemporary Main Street, U.S.A. The White Dawn, a quieter, more controlled film, deals with the incursion of representatives of ‘civilized society’ into a world of primitives. The remarkable range of responses among the film’s characters reflects something of the depth and complexity of national, cultural, and racial conflicts. Where the outlaws of Northfieldstaged a raid on a new way of life, whose coming meant their own obsolescence, the three castaways of The White Dawnfound themselves confronting a new physical world: out of place rather than out of time. Inthe debacle that finally befalls them, The White Dawntakes an essentially cynical viewpoint: Against the optimistic observation that most human beings are adaptable, and will in time adjust to cultural differences, opting for compromise or harmonious coexistence, is set the stark portrayal of the strength of the bigoted few who, out of fear or simple stubbornness, will ultimately prevail: people of whatever society are ultimately led by the worst among them.”
[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
One of the most affecting moments in Philip Kaufmanâ€™s Invasion of the Body Snatcherswas the swamping of the soundtrack with an amplified-bagpipe version of â€œAmazing Graceâ€ as the remaining human searched the night world for a means of escape. The cargo ship whose radio is the source of the music turns out to be loading up with pods, and as the hero sees this and the door is shut on his hopes of a getaway, the radio dial is turned from â€œGraceâ€ to a newscasterâ€™s flat voice. This scene is dramatically different from the counterpart sequence in Don Siegelâ€™s original Body Snatchers:there the hero heard some Spanish singing, had his hopes raised that he was among feeling humans again, excitedly climbed over a hill to meet themâ€”and discovered simultaneously that these are pod people and that thatâ€™s only a radio, not a woman singing, as the station is abruptly changed. The difference between the two versions is that Kaufman does not pretend that the music is anything but artificial, while Siegel surehandedly goes after the shock we feel when the station is switched; Kaufman seems interested in the mythic proportions of the music itself (the lyrics of the hymn, not sung but surely known by 75 percent of the audience, comment suggestively on the organized, sheeplike groups of pods: â€œI once was lost, but now Iâ€™m foundâ€”was blind, but now I seeâ€), especially as they are set against the tiny visual representation of the hero. All of which finally comes around to the observation that this guy Kaufman can put music and images together real well, and that his latest film, The Wanderers, displays this talent for much of its running time.