The Right Stuff (1983)

Directed by Philip Kaufman

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The Right Stuff is an epic about the Mercury Seven.  These were the first astronauts selected to risk life and limb as the U.S. competed with the Soviet Union in the space race.  Their efforts are certainly noble, but the film takes a wide enough look at the powers that sent them into space, and they are made to be buffoons of a certain sort.

At over three hours long, The Right Stuff has a lot to play with, whether it’s characters, themes or tone.  It deftly balances all of the above, sometimes swinging quickly from broad comedy (I’m thinking mostly of the Jeff Goldblum/Harry Shearer tag team) to grim drama, such as when John Glenn is nearly killed or when Gus Grissom breaks down in front of his wife following a costly mistake at the end of his mission.

Underneath all of this we are made to understand the grasp for greatness and the immense sacrifice on the parts of these astronauts and their families.  An early scene, a quite poignant one, has a few of the future astronauts/current Edwards Air Force Base pilots sharing a few beers and laughs by the grill while their wives sit inside, stoic like the characters of an Edward Hopper painting of a wake.  The divide between them is clear, and it’s an unsettling reality of their lives that the comedy in the film never undercuts.

I think there are a lot of ways that the comedy could cannibalize the dramatic true stories, but it’s also quite possible that it’s a necessary counterpoint.  Like a war epic such as The Longest Day, this film offers a glimpse into the whole process, from the board rooms where the decisions are made to the tiny capsules in which the astronauts find themselves so close to death.

Sequences throughout the film (including multiple attempts by pilots to break the sound barrier) are appropriately gripping, meaning you might find yourself white-knuckling your seat just as the pilots do to their controls.  In between, to diffuse the tension, there is a sense of humor that the pilots themselves contribute to.  They are cocky, ego-centric and driven.  There is no room in their brains for doubt, and the most poignant moments of the film come when those cracks do form.

I think I wrote about this recently for another film, which I can’t presently recall, but there is something very dramatic about these astronauts journeys as well as very amusing about such an attempt at greatness, at least as seen from very far away.

On a human level, these characters risk a lot, and we never want to see them fail.  From further away, however, there’s something kind of funny about the idea of astronauts one by one flinging themselves off of the earth to float around for a little while.

The idea is at least silly to the test pilots early into the film, when they are first approached about the possibility of space.  They loathe the pitch by the men in suits (Shearer, Goldblum) because they figure all the men in Washington want is a chimpanzee to sit helplessly by as the machine propels them deep into space.  And they’re right.

America, however, wants heroes to gleam onto, and the astronauts use this to take back some agency in their own mission.  They will be ridiculed by other test pilots back at Edwards Air Force Base who see them as mascots for a desperate campaign to catch up with the Soviets.  One of these sneering pilots is Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard).  He is the first character we meet and, thus, begin to empathize with.  Like the other astronauts he is driven by something insatiable, in his case to break the sound barrier and then to defend his title any time someone else threatens it.

Yeager never goes into space, but he’s quickly a model for the other astronauts to live up to (whether or not their wives agree is another story).  His journey will book end the film, and in the middle of it he will pop up here and there, mostly just to defend the astronauts, even amidst their struggles.  He’s there as a voice of wisdom (as Sam Shepard often is) to challenge those who say the astronauts are no better than chimpanzees.  Unlike the chimp first sent into space, the astronauts know how much is at stake, and it’s that knowledge that makes them heroic.  It’s not whether or not they succeed, just that there’s an attempt.

Each of the astronauts experiences some success, at least in that they make it up to space and keep the line moving, leading eventually, of course, to Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon six years later.  These are people to be admired, and that is made most clear in the end, when Yeager is motivated by what the astronauts have accomplished to reach for the stars himself.

He undertakes his own death defying leap for greatness and plunges his jet high up into the sky to the point where the blues start to turn black, and the stars begin to poke through the waning wisps of clouds.  The stunt nearly kills him, but his survival is meant to provide a rousing stirring within the audience, to see that yes we can go to the limit and come back to tell the story.

Up Next: Blindspotting (2018), The Predator (2018), Mars Attacks! (1996)

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