The Right Stuff (1983)

2009 #49
Philip Kaufman | 181 mins | TV | 15 / PG

The Right StuffThe Right Stuff ostensibly dramatises the story of the ‘Mercury 7’, America’s first group of astronauts, but in fact equally concerns itself with the tale of test pilot Chuck Yeager. But I’ll get to him.

I’ve recently steeped myself in dramas and documentaries relating to the US space program, from For All Mankind’s contemporary footage to In the Shadow of the Moon’s retrospective interviews, from Moonshot’s earnest docudrama account of Apollo 11 to From the Earth to the Moon’s thorough chronicling of events. But all of these have one thing in common: they cover the Apollo missions alone. Mercury came first, America’s initial attempts to put men into space before Apollo’s grand mission to the Moon.

In this context it’s nice to actually get some coverage of these earlier, vital missions, though such an in-depth knowledge of what was to follow has its problems for The Right Stuff’s narrative, just as knowing the facts always does for a historical movie. Equally, it gives the emotional resonance a helping hand — knowing Gus Grissom’s tragic fate lends the poor treatment he received following his unfortunate splashdown an extra poignancy; or when Alan Shepard asserts he’s going to the Moon you know he’ll make it (eventually).

Exposure to other such works makes quality comparisons inevitable too, though the only one of serious relevance here is From the Earth to the Moon. It’s an unfair one, of course: despite The Right Stuff’s epic running time, it’s nothing to the twelve hours afforded to an HBO miniseries. Conversely, where the miniseries is effectively twelve one-hour plays, shifting focus every episode, director Philip Kaufman’s film does follow a more linear — albeit wide-reaching — progression. While Yeager may disappear for long stretches, for example, his story is revisited and continued; while Gordon Cooper isn’t introduced until after we’ve had plenty of Yeager, the film closes on his first spaceflight. Flitting from character to character could make the film feel fragmented — and the brevity in dealing with many of the supporting characters, especially the wives, does suggest this — but the missions move ever on and take the narrative with them.

The other effect of having seen so much about the space program of late is that the trips to space lose some of their wonder. The handful of spaceflights actually depicted here are often praised, both for their special effects and their pure effect on the viewer, but having seen many others recently does tarnish the sense of wonder somewhat. The effects work is faultless however, as is the integration of footage of the real missions, and the unique qualities of John Glenn’s flight make it stand out regardless of how many other real spaceflights one’s seen recreated on screen.

A handful of these sequences aside, Kaufman leaves the technical aspect of proceedings alone. The various test flights and rocket launches we do see are undoubtedly important set pieces, but they’re not a thorough catalogue of events. Attention is only lavished on the scientific and engineering challenges when it has some direct impact on the characters, and just as often Kaufman is concerned with the family — specifically, the wife — behind the astronaut. These touches of family drama are well played, most affectingly with Glenn and his shy, stuttering wife, but each astronaut’s tale comes and goes, not even one relationship going through an arc that lasts more than two or three scenes. Even when powerfully portrayed, these are portraits not stories.

There are some injections of humour and symbolism too, but again in keeping with the piecemeal style. A pair of NASA recruitment officers, played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, provide some comic relief early on for quite a sustained stretch, but then more or less disappear — excepting a recurring motif of Goldblum telling a room of Important Men news they already know. Similarly, the film opens with a fantastic image of Death, a black-clad preacher arriving to inform a wife and child of their husband/father’s fiery death. He crops up again, demonstrating his presence as symbol and not character, but is too often forgotten about. Plaudits are due for not overusing him, naturally, but a few more appearances wouldn’t have gone amiss.

And so what of Yeager? Why so much of a test pilot who was denied the chance to apply to be an astronaut, even if he’d wanted to? It’s hard to disagree with the assessment of screenwriter William Goldman, who left the project over disagreements with the director: it seems Kaufman, for whatever reason, is set in a belief that Yeager had ‘the right stuff’ pumping through his veins, while those chosen to be astronauts were just ordinary guys who got lucky; that Yeager was a pilot proper, brave and skilled, while the Mercury 7 were little more than living computers to perform a handful of tasks atop a huge rocket. If this is Kaufman’s belief it isn’t overbearing, but you can see where Goldman’s coming from. After all, if this is purely the story of the Mercury 7 and their trips into space, why is Yeager there at all, never mind so prominently?

By eschewing a straight trotting out of facts and incidents, even a dramatised one, for a selection of events and experiences, Kaufman made a film that is perhaps less about the real-life story and more thematic — that theme being, primarily, heroism. If he winds up uncertain whether or not the Mercury 7 were heroes, perhaps that’s the point: these were just ordinary men, thrust into an extraordinary situation. Except Yeager, of course, who is never anything less than the flawless embodiment of the titular virtue.

4 out of 5

The Right Stuff is on ITV4 tonight at 10:35pm.

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