Sixteen years of air and space advancement , from the breaking of the sound barrier to orbiting the earth.
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Starring Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, and Scott Glenn
Review by Jon Kissel
This phase of the film comes to an end in 1957, a full decade after Yeager breaks the sound barrier. The Soviets have sent Sputnik into orbit, and the highest reaches of the US government find this untenable. If they couldn’t send the first object into space, they can at least send the first man, and President Eisenhower insists that they use test pilots. The men at Edwards are obvious candidates, but for them, the mission is insulting. They’re pilots, not dead weight to be sat on a bomb. The best of the best sit out in exchange for the Mercury 7, all military men who are capable but, as far as the film is concerned, are inferior to Yeager in every way. With American icons like John Glenn (Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) now dominating the media landscape and the film itself, Yeager operates in obscurity at Edwards as his missions have been deemed beneath the public interest.
Kaufman, adapting a script from a Tom Wolfe book, is just as interested in the wives of Yeager and the Mercury 7. Glennis Yeager, who provides the namesake for Yeager’s record-breaking plane, stands in for the missed opportunities of women like her. Barbara Hershey plays her as Yeager’s equal in laconicism and toughness, both Western archetypes of will. If Yeager had been interested in the Mercury program, she would be the complete outlier of the other wives, punching the first photographer that dared to stick his hand through her screen door. Amongst the Mercury wives, fitting into a specific box is implied to be a prerequisite. They all look a certain way, and it would’ve been easy for the film to put them in the background as a visual representation of 50’s conformity. Instead, characters like Trudy Cooper (Pamela Reed), Annie Glenn (Mary Jo Deschanel), and Betsy Grissom (Veronica Cartwright) chafe against their husbands and the roles they’ve been put into. Trudy would likely be out of the marriage were it not for the pressure to put on a good face, Betsy’s resentment towards the space program builds and builds, and Annie’s debilitating stutter puts her at odds with the demand for banal, supportive snippets. They provide a necessary counter-balance to the male energy that otherwise dominates the film, and though their scenes are the most easily imagined as destined for the cutting room floor, losing these characters would not have improved The Right Stuff.
At more than three hours, The Right Stuff justifies its length with its breadth of subject matter, but also with its tone. For big chunks, Kaufman turns the film over to the comedy styling of Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer. They play bumbling NASA recruiters who share a brain, completing each other’s sentences while the other pukes off the side of an aircraft carrier. Both steal their sections of the film, but they’re far down the call sheet. The Right Stuff stays light and breezy by stressing the absurdity of so much of this stage of the space program. It’s edited by a credited staff of five to work like a Zucker-Abrams film, with a long sequence accentuating how badly Shepard needs to pee in his spacesuit. The best edits in the film come from these very serious government types talking about the strenuous nature of the Mercury training program, followed immediately by a cut to jiggle tests. This is a period of totally unrestrained government testing, when unregulated experiments ran alongside limitless expenditures. It produced plenty of black marks, but it was sometimes as stupid as strapping a man to a contraption and dropping it from height.
The Right Stuff’s dedication to the by turns ridiculous and serious realism of the early space program means that it doesn’t have a lot of room for the cinematic flourishes that made something like 2001 great, or will make something like First Man great. Kaufman doesn’t have an illustrious career before or after this film, and his greatest talent here is managing so many moving parts. The film’s most artistic flourish are effects in the early going as Yeager breaks the sound barrier, or during Glenn’s orbital flights. These are minimally effective at their best, and puzzling in Glenn’s case. On the visceral front, the flying sequences somehow become less stressful than the feral intrusion of the press onto the wives’ homes. Those are effective, but aren’t what the film is primarily about. Damian Chazelle can convince me that Neil Armstrong might die in First Man. The Right Stuff doesn’t have that level of edge-of-your-seat discomfort. It works as a somewhat satirical historical recreation, and not as a you-are-there transportation device.
The Right Stuff failed to find an audience, a result that is a mystery thanks to the renewed Cold War tensions and Morning in America propaganda of the time. This seems like it would’ve been a huge success, especially for as big a cultural footprint it has. The Right Stuff is a crowdpleaser without the crowd, a fun film about earnest Americans that’s also unafraid of making them look silly. Like Alan Shepard with warm pee crawling up his back, there’s a relaxed comfort to watching it. It’s the epitome of a lazy weekend viewing, not too challenging but important enough that it feels like being productive. The Right Stuff just feels good, likely due to its evocation of a period when the country fumbled towards group success instead of floundered towards atomization, like it seems to be doing now. The archetypal American male is in permanent need of comeuppance, and good on the film that provides it while also finding room for admiration. B+