What makes The Right Stuff a great film, and one of my all time favorites, is that it has a tremendous range, and is made with the skill to fully realize it. It is certainly one of the greatest movies about the American spirit, almost extravagantly so. In fact, extravagance is a great word to use to describe the film on the whole, as everything it does is done in a manner that goes the whole nine yards. It manages to tell a gigantic story that spans many years, while not losing focus on the small parts that made it happen. It tells a story that shows the danger and high stakes of the space race, but manages to keep a great sense of humor. Last, but not least, it manages to proudly demonstrate the American spirit, while also satirizing it. The important aspect of the satire is that it is portrayed without a trace of cynicism, a trait that is rare in films.
The Right Stuff follows the evolution of the American space program from the roots. Space isn’t a thought in this movie for about 45 minutes. We start on Andrews Air Force base, where test pilots are fighting with “a demon in the air”. This demon is the sound barrier, Mach 1. The man for the job is Chuck Yeager (played brilliantly by Sam Shepard), who continued to break records after being the first to reach Mach 1. At a bar on the base, there are pictures on the wall of many brave pilots, all of which have lost their lives in the air. A man in black presides over funerals and tells families the bad news. This man is a specter over the film, and we see him throughout the runtime, a grim reminder that death is always a possibility.
After Yeager breaks the sound barrier, a reporter runs to a phone to break the story, and a military official stops him, telling him this is confidential information. How funny this is to think back to later in the film, where NASA becomes a circus of press. The reporters and photographers swarm like locusts, and Philip Kaufman cleverly overlays a slight insect buzzing under shots of the media. One of my other favorite movies, L.A. Confidential, shows the time where crime and the media began to converge, and The Right Stuff shows a time where the government fully utilized the benefits of the media. As one of the films many memorable quotes says: “No bucks, no Buck Rodgers.” NASA uses its astronauts to get media attention, and in one of the great scenes, the astronauts use the media to pressure NASA.
The Right Stuff is a film about masculinity, showing the brave exploits of men willing to risk their lives because it’s their job. You have to think of the guts it took for a man like Yeager to get into an airplane and attempt to break the sound barrier, something that killed every man before him. I suppose that’s the definition of the title. It’s a quality that these men have, whether they’re the big stars of NASA, or the men like Yeager, left behind to the thankless world of test pilots, they’re all willing to risk their lives to reach speeds and heights that most people could only dream of.
There is a feminine side of the film too, in the pilots wives, the women who have agreed to link themselves to men who may not ever come home from work. In an early scene, the women are inside, talking about the dangers of their husbands jobs, and the fear that they live with every day. Meanwhile, the men are out back, spraying beer and burning hot dogs. Perhaps that’s how they deal with the fear: they don’t think about it. But when things go wrong, it seems to occur to them what danger they’re actually in, and we see that in some of the aviation sequences.
The technical mastery at play in this film are excellent in every aspect. The aviation scenes are thrilling, the writing is sharp, and the score is as adventurous as we’ve heard, matching the excitement of the acts it’s supporting. The movie is aided by its Oscar winning editing, which not only greatly shows off the speed and skill of these pilots, but acts as a storytelling device. Early, when Chuck Yeager is near Mach 1, we get quick cuts back to the pictures of the deceased pilots on the wall, and a shot of the looming man in black. Later in the film, while still back at the Air Force base, Yeager walks out of the bar, and looks wistfully at the Moon. Moments later, the face of the Moon becomes the face of the leader of the Russian space program in flames, celebrating the launch of the first man into space. The great flow of this movie allows it to be the quickest moving 3 hour plus movie I’ve ever seen.
The performances are uniformly great, an example of excellent ensemble acting. Ed Harris plays a perfect boy scout in John Glenn, Scott Glenn is phenomenal as wisecracking Alan Shepard, Dennis Quaid hits all the right notes as hot shot Gordo Cooper, and Fred Ward does great in a tough role as Gus Grissom. All of these men are great, but the heart of the film is Sam Shepard’s portrayal of Chuck Yeager, a man of few words, but great power. He isn’t considered for the space program because he’s too old, and doesn’t have a college degree, but it is suggested he’s the best test pilot in the world. Yeager is not too positive about the space program, saying that the astronauts wouldn’t be a true pilot, but “spam in a can”. But later we see in his face that he wishes he could go to space, and at one point, he gets so close, only to fall back to Earth.
The movie theorizes that maybe Yeager was right at first, maybe NASA did just want somebody to go along for the ride in the capsule. In fact, in an early scene, the idea of test pilots as astronauts was met with disdain, as “you can’t deal with those people.” Were NASA just looking for poster boys for the American side of the space race? The astronauts first press conference is a zoo, and they’re asked questions about their wives and about their religion, but not much about their mission. The press wants all the right answers, and that never rings more true than in a late scene, where they ask Gordo Cooper who the best pilot he ever saw was. Throughout the film, he’s been saying himself, but here, he tries to give a serious answer. He says most of the best ones are just pictures on a wall, the men with him (especially Gus Grissom, after a rough trip) and when it seems he’s about to say Yeager, the media starts to lose interest. At this point, he goes back to his old line, “You’re looking at him”. The media is ecstatic, as they’ve finally gotten the answer they were looking for.
Legendary director Howard Hawks said that a good movie needs at least 3 great scenes, and no bad ones. I think The Right Stuff has many great scenes, and I can’t think of a moment I don’t like. It’s a great scene when Yeager rides past an experimental plane in the desert. It’s a great scene when he takes that plane and breaks the sound barrier. It’s a great scene when John Glenn supports his stuttering wife when she refuses to speak with Lyndon Johnson (the cartoonish portrayal of Vice President Johnson is a bone of contention with some people who think it’s too “big”, something I could understand). It’s a great scene when the astronauts band together to make their capsule into a spacecraft, adding a door, window, and controls. It’s a great scene when we see the old bar at the base burn down, taking the pictures with it. Symbolically, this is showing the work of the past being lost, remnants of a time that has past in the public eye.
However, the greatest scene, and one of my favorites in film history, is a bravura sequence near the end of the film. While the astronauts are at a gigantic, almost absurd, celebration of their feats, Yeager attempts to break the elevation record in a new experimental jet. While we see the astronauts being entertained by a woman doing a fan dance, it is inter-cut with Yeager climbing higher and higher into the air, until he can see the stars. He is so close to space, but his plane gives out on him in the thin upper atmosphere, and begins plummeting back to the ground. He ejects before the plane hits, and as an ambulance drives out to the crash site, they’re shocked to see Yeager walking towards them, dragging his parachute. He’s badly burned, but on his feet, still chomping away at his stick of Beeman’s gum, proving once again that he has The Right Stuff.