The Right Stuff (1983)

D: Philip Kaufman
S: Sam Shepard, Ed Harris

After their foray into the realms of speculative science fiction with Blade Runner, The Ladd Company have thrown their weight behind director Philip Kaufman's ambitious adaptation of Tom Wolfe's 'faction' novel charting the early years of the American space programme. This time the content is nominally more literal. Bracketed and otherwise meaningfully punctuated by the story of air force test pilot Chuck Yeager (the first man to break the sound barrier), The Right Stuff is a striking study of the fate of the pioneering spirit in the burgeoning space age. It depicts the search for, training of, and first missions by the Mercury astronauts, a moment in twentieth century American history where outlandish tales of men in space were about to become reality.

An early scene depicts Yeager (played with effective understatement by playwright Sam Shepard) clad in standard westerner garb riding a horse on the dusty plains around the testing grounds for experimental aircraft. He comes upon the soon-to-be-legendary X-1, which sits humming ominously awaiting a pilot brave or foolhardy enough to fly it to the edge of human experience. It's the first knowing reference to the 'Buck Rogers' culture explored and dissected by Wolfe and Kaufman: a canny nod to the traditions (and clichés) of American heroism which the space programme put to the test amid technological, political, and personal challenges well beyond the comic-strip premise perceived by the public.

Kaufman does an excellent job of portraying the social and political currents and eddies which flow around the central characters. The spirit of adventure seems constantly in danger of being overwhelmed by behind-the-scenes conflicts, not only between the astronauts, but between economic and ideological concerns which set the agenda. As the Soviet Union advances more quickly than the United States, men in suits and uniforms push ever faster forward with only the barest thought for the fates of the men. Meanwhile the astronauts, after some initial disagreements, realise that they are more important than the machinery in terms of attracting the attention and support of the American public. Added to the mix then is the frenetic attention of the American media, themselves caught between the need to increase circulation with tales of these real life spacemen and the broader need for propaganda.

The astronauts are played by a fine cast of character performers including Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, and Fred Ward. None of them steal the limelight in the sense of the picture itself, but many of the internal pressures which the story deals with revolve around the ways in which these chosen few related to one another internally. There are also plenty of particular crises which emerge out of the mission, particularly those which eventually result in actual space flight. The characterisations are generally rounded with a variety of incident, from the gruelling training montages to the more personal dramas which unfold both in the locker rooms and at home.

An equally good cast of female actors take on the roles of the astronaut's wives including Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, and Pamela Reed (Barbara Hershey is also an important presence as Yeager's wife). These women, saddled with the burdens of relative powerlessness and invasive media attention, face challenges which again complement and offset the primary action. This detail, like those concerning negotiations in darkened board rooms also forms an important part of the social, psychological, and emotional tapestry of the film. Yet key 'big picture' players such as Werner von Braun and Lyndon B. Johnson are thrown away as comic relief in favour of a defiant focus on the astronauts themselves. This lends more weight to the film's quest to find the centre of 'the right stuff', and to its decision to use the steadfast Yeager as its signifier. In this it succeeds, and one comes away with a strong sense of the nexus of issues at stake in what would have remained merely schoolboy fantasy without a concatenation of human and social forces.

The film is also a technical marvel. Though literally light years from the whizz-bang effects of Return of the Jedi, it makes effective use of the work of production designers, model builders, and sound and visual technicians to recreate the technology of the era. The film mounts some splendidly exciting launch and test flight sequences, and it has been cut together with an eye for the balance needed between scenes of action and drama to sustain a film of over three hours running time. This is a work of immense craftsmanship on every level, a film which emulates the style of the 'new journalism' which inspired it insofar as it combines an ability to provide information, critical speculation, and entertainment in almost equal doses without being either condescending or aloof.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes with no extras whatsoever, and you must be careful not to get the 'regular' panned and scanned version which was initially distributed in Region 2 by Warner Home Video. The letterboxed 1.85:1 aspect ratio version is available and (obviously) preferable.