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Remind Me
,The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (1983), a sarcastic adaptation of Tom Wolfe's equally sarcastic novel about the Mercury space program, is one of the more under-appreciated, misunderstood films of the 1980s. This often cartoonish expose on square-jawed machismo pokes broad fun at America's obsession with heroics while simultaneously celebrating the allure of testosterone-driven fearlessness. Kaufman's superlative cast never wavers from the movie's tricky tone, and the otherworldly special effects by Gary Gutierrez and Jordan Belson are nothing short of stunning.

If there's a real star of this sprawling piece of work, it's the title prototype, that certain something that enables a man to stare death in the eye while riding a roaring piece of machinery to the upper reaches of the atmosphere. The pilots and astronauts who possess this quality never talk about it- they just get the job done, precisely and stoically. The first part of the movie follows the cowboyish Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), as he romances his wife (Barbara Hershey) and ignores the deaths of his test pilot co-horts on the way to becoming the first man to break the sound barrier. Yeager, however, is deemed unsuitable for the space program(!), so he's left behind in the desert while less-accomplished (and, the government hopes, more cooperative) pilots are invited to train for eventual missions in space.

Just the thought of what the Mercury astronauts might do is enough to create a media frenzy. They're treated as heroes before they ever climb into a capsule, and they're fully aware of the irony. Kaufman mainly focuses on John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), and Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn.) But Wolfe, much to his credit, recognized the importance of the astronaut's wives in this story. They, after all, display a different kind of stoicism, waiting at home for possible news that their husbands have perished in a ball of flame. Pamela Reed, as Gordon Cooper's quietly amused wife, Trudy, is one of the genuine standouts of this fine cast. (Glenn's wife, Annie, is played by Mary Jo Deschanel, the real-life wife of Kaufman's brilliant cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel.)

The narrative jumps back and forth between the astronauts training for their flights, then soaring into space, and Yeager maintaining his dignity while far less accomplished pilots and, at one point, a chimpanzee - are trumpeted around the world for their daring. Still, even with the smart-alecky attitude, Kaufman gives the astronauts their due. Glenn, in particular, is lauded for the bravery involved in his mission. His capsule's re-entry into the atmosphere is an electrifying highlight.

At first glance, The Right Stuff may look like just another patriotic epic, but don't be fooled. It's a truly unique picture. Kaufman seems more interested in examining how we perceive our heroes than he is in painting a realistic portrait of the pilots and politicians who teamed up to send men into space. When the movie was originally released back in 1983, most people, caught up as they were in Ronald Reagan's candy-coated view of America, didn't know what to make of it.

The Right Stuff went through an extensive, fairly painful gestation period, as detailed in screenwriter William Goldman's popular book, Adventures in the Screen Trade. Goldman, who also wrote Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President's Men (1976), argued that Yeager's story should be dumped in favor of focusing solely on the astronauts. Kaufman strongly disagreed and ended up writing his own adaptation of the novel. It's debatable who was right in this standoff, which Goldman termed "a nightmare." Kaufman's story does seem rather disjointed, but Yeager's chase of the elusive sound barrier contains some incredibly thrilling sequences, and his courage stands as a working definition of "The Right Stuff." What the movie loses in steam, it gains in impact through the inclusion of his exploits.

Kaufman also played fast and loose with his casting. Shepard was better known as an award-winning playwright - Harris, as a matter of fact, made a big splash in 1983 in Shepard's play, True West - when he was signed on for the pivotal role of Yeager. (You should also keep an eye open for a cameo by the real Yeager, as a bartender who offers Shepard a shot of whiskey.) Jack Ridley, Yeager's partner-in-crime, both in the air and on the ground, is played by Levon Helm, the drummer for the profoundly influential rock band, The Band. Helm and Shepard traveled in the same circles long before this movie was made. Levon played drums behind Bob Dylan during a couple of legendary 1970s tours, and Shepard was a part of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review, in 1975. He, too, played the drums.

Somewhat oddly, when you consider how playfully audacious it is, The Right Stuff's initial notoriety hinged on Kaufman's treatment of John Glenn. Glenn, who was then a straight-arrow senator from the state of Ohio, was pursuing the presidency when the picture debuted. Many people thought it would give him an unfair advantage in the campaign, but it didn't help much: he was basically trounced in the primaries, just as the film was at the box office.

Directed by: Philip Kaufman
Screenplay: Philip Kaufman (based on the book by Tom Wolfe)
Producer: Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Editing: Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart, and Tom Rolf
Music: Bill Conti Production Design: Geoffrey Kirkland
Art Design: Richard Lawrence, W. Stewart Campbell, and Peter R. Romero Special Effects: Gary Gutierrez and Jordan Belson Principal Cast: Sam Shepard (Chuck Yeager), Scott Glenn (Alan Shepard), Ed Harris (John Glenn), Dennis Quaid (Gordon Cooper), Fred Ward (Gus Grissom), Barbara Hershey (Glennis Yeager), Veronica Cartwright (Betty Grissom), Pamela Reed (Trudy Cooper), Lance Henriksen (Wally Schirra), Donald Moffat (Lyndon B. Johnson), Levon Helm (Jack Ridley), Mary Jo Deschanel (Annie Glenn).
C-193m. Letterboxed.

by Paul Tatara