Hidden Figures (2016)

2017 #170
Theodore Melfi | 127 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Hidden Figures

Based on a true story, Hidden Figures is about three black women working at NASA in the early ’60s, a time when segregation was still in force in the US.

It’s a double whammy of timely issues, then: they struggle to prove they’re clever and have scientific know-how because they’re women, and they struggle to prove they’re worth treating with respect because they’re black. How depressing that these things are still relevant over 50 years later. That said, any right-minded person watching it will still be suitably appalled that this kind of thing went on at all — even when you know about it, seeing it played out is something else.

Of course, it comes with a positive message attached: these people overcome their societally-imposed disadvantages to be awesome nonetheless, fighting everyday sexism and racism left, right and centre to eventually prove their worth. Hurrah! It’s a strong message, even more powerful thanks to it being a true story, and no doubt goes a long way to explaining the film’s success. As a movie in its own right, it’s nothing particularly special. There are good performances from a high-calibre cast, but everything else is pretty standard for a biopic — well done, but there’s a reason the film’s Oscar nominations were for acting and screenwriting.

4 out of 5

Hidden Figures is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Armageddon (1998)

2016 #133
Michael Bay | 145 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

ArmageddonSometimes you have to wait to see a film because it’s not accessible for some reason (no one’s put it out yet, or it’s out of print and costs a fortune, or whatever). Other times… maybe it’s just me, but there are some films that I wait years to watch for no particular reason. Not wait in the sense of “drumming my fingers waiting for the chance”, but in the sense that I’ll get to it someday, it’s just not a priority, for whatever reason. And then one day, with nothing apparently having changed, the time comes when it’s that movie’s turn.

So it was for me with Armageddon, Michael Bay’s 1998 sci-fi disaster epic. It’s a film I’ve been aware of since it came out (how could you not be?) but never cared enough to actually watch, other than a general feeling I’d get round to it one day because (a) it’s the kind of movie everyone else has seen, and (b) when Michael Bay’s good, he is good (at what he does), so it’s at least worth a look. It’s a pretty readily available film — the kind of thing I regularly see in TV listings or on streaming services and consider watching and end up deciding “nah, not today” — so quite what made me finally watch it now — what made me see it in a list and go “actually, yes, today” — I’m not sure. Such are the mysteries of life. Or of my brain, at any rate.

For the few people who haven’t seen it, then, it’s about a giant asteroid heading towards Earth, where its impact will cause an extinction-level event, and NASA deciding the only way to stop it is to send up a couple of spaceships to land on the asteroid, drop nukes inside, and blow it up (it’s a Michael Bay movie, of course the solution is “blow it up”). To learn about the kind of deep drilling this would require, they bring in the best driller around, Bruce Willis, to train the astronauts. But drilling isn’t something you can learn in a couple of weeks — unlike “how to be an astronaut”, apparently, because it’s decided it will be easier to train drillers to be astronauts than train astronauts to use a drill.

At least they know which way space isIf you’re a reader from outside the UK, I guess you’ve probably not heard of Tim Peake. He’s (quite rightly) been big news here for the last year or so because he was our first (official) astronaut. That it’s taken until now for there to be a British astronaut seems remarkable, but there you go. I guess we always let other people do the initial exploring, then come along later to own the place — I mean, that Columbus fella was Italian, and is Italian the official language of America? No it is not. Anyway, Peake is a qualified helicopter pilot and instructor, has a degree in Flight Dynamics and Evaluation, was selected to be an astronaut in a process that involved academic tests, fitness assessments, and several interviews, and then received six years of training, including a mission as an aquanaut, before he went into space. But no, you can totally train a group of drillers to do that in a fortnight.

Many Hollywood blockbusters have ludicrous concepts, but Armageddon feels designed to plow new furrows of ridiculousness. Apparently NASA show the film to new managers and ask them to spot the errors. There are at least 168. It only takes a few minutes before it’s already so OTT that it seems like a spoof of Bay — I mean, the title card explodes for crying out loud. When the president makes a speech just before the launch, the quaint shots of the world listening in make it look like the film’s set in the 1950s. Despite being a full two-and-a-half hours long, Bay manages to make the whole film feel like a plot-summarising montage. The average shot length must be Moulin Rouge-level crazy, though where that film weighs super-fast-cut scenes against more measured ones, I think Armageddon is out-of-control-freight-train fast for every last second. Bay is so impatient, the credits start rolling before the film has even finished! And why the fuck does the drilling vehicle have a fucking great machine gun on it?!

Bruce Willis flashesApparently Michael Bay thinks it’s his worst film. In 2013, he said, “I will apologise for Armageddon, because we had to do the whole movie in 16 weeks. It was a massive undertaking. That was not fair to the movie. I would redo the entire third act if I could.” The problems stretch further than that, Michael.

Believe it or not, it’s not all bad. The bit where Bruce Willis’ life flashes before his eyes is actually really good — ten seconds of artistic moviemaking in a 150-minute movie! Visually it looks great throughout, meaning DoP John Schwartzman is possibly the only person who comes out of the whole thing entirely unscathed. The special effects are excellent for 1998. I thought Independence Day’s were still effective when I re-watched it earlier this year, but Armageddon’s feel much less dated, and it was only made two years later. As an effects showcase, it absolutely still holds up today. That said, the top of the Chrysler building falling off, complete with plummeting screaming people, is considerably less palatable since 9/11. And just a minute later there’s a shot of the World Trade Center with burning holes in it. It’s a wonder it hasn’t been re-edited to remove those shots, especially as it’s a Disney-owned movie and they have a history of self-censoring stuff that is no longer considered acceptable.

Armageddon was, famously, released the same year as Deep Impact, which I watched many years ago but remember as a character-driven drama about an asteroid threatening the end of the world. Armageddon’s action-packed bluster was more successful at the box office, of course, but Deep Impact was the more mature movie. SPACE EXPLOSION!Maybe I’m wrong — it has a lower rating on IMDb. But then, that is IMDb. I should probably watch it again, but even without doing that I feel pretty confident saying it’s the better film.

If Michael Bay knew he was making a comedy, Armageddon might be a great movie. But he didn’t. While it’s definitely bad, I did kind of enjoy it… but mainly to laugh at. Make of that what you will.

2 out of 5

Apollo 13 (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #4

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 140 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 30th June 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 22nd September 1995
First Seen: cinema, 1995

Stars
Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan)
Bill Paxton (Tombstone, Twister)
Kevin Bacon (Footloose, The Woodsman)
Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump, Snake Eyes)
Ed Harris (The Right Stuff, The Truman Show)

Director
Ron Howard (Willow, A Beautiful Mind)

Screenwriter
William Broyles Jr. (Cast Away, Flags of Our Fathers)
Al Reinert (For All Mankind, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within)

Based on
Lost Moon, a true-story book by Jim Lovell & Jeffrey Kluger.

The Story
The third manned mission to land on the Moon launches to little public interest… but that all changes when an accident cripples the spacecraft. Not only will the three astronauts on board not be landing on the Moon, but they might not be able to make it back to Earth…

Our Hero
Everybody — from the three men who may die in space, to the spurned astronaut who locks himself in the simulator to find a solution, to the dozens of mission commanders and tech guys who work round the clock to keep the astronauts alive and bring them home.

Best Supporting Character
The whole cast are pretty great, but Ed Harris really earnt his Oscar nomination as the commander in Mission Control, Gene Kranz. (See also: memorable quote, below.)

Memorable Quote
NASA Director: “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever faced.”
Gene Kranz: “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

Memorable Scene
After surviving days in space on dwindling power, slingshotting the craft round the moon, and adjusting course last-minute to actually aim at Earth, the crippled remains of Apollo 13 enter the atmosphere. There will be three minutes of radio silence before they know if the astronauts have survived reentry. Everyone watches and waits. Silence. Three minutes is reached. Silence. Three minutes thirty seconds passes… In the command center, at the astronauts’ home, at Jay Lovell’s school, everyone waits. Four minutes passes… Goodness, it’s shamelessly manipulative filmmaking, but if your hair isn’t on end and you aren’t practically on your feet cheering with everyone else, you truly are immune.

Technical Wizardry
Gravity used a shedload of groundbreaking tech and computer graphics to simulate zero-G. 20 years earlier, Apollo 13 wasn’t so lucky, so how did they do it? In part, for real. Sets were built inside NASA’s (in)famous ‘Vomit Comet’, an airplane that flies in parabolic arcs to give astronauts an experience of zero-G, but only for 23 seconds at a time. With such a small window, shots to be achieved were carefully planned out, and cast and crew endured over 500 arcs in 13 days to film the necessary footage.

Truly Special Effect
The lift-off sequence, a combination of models and CGI without a single frame of stock footage, is iconic. For me, at least, the shot tracking down the side of the craft as the supports pull away is as indelible an image of an Apollo launch as any documentary footage.

Letting the Side Down
Two decades on, some of the CG effects (especially on Earth) are beginning to show their age. (The model work still looks grand, though.)

Making of
According to Ron Howard in a 20th anniversary interview, Tom Hanks was cast because they thought he was the actor the world would most want to save.

Next time…
The film was followed by 12-part HBO series From the Earth to the Moon, which tells the entire story of the US’s quest to put a man on the moon, from the creation of NASA to the end of the Apollo programme. It’s really good.

Awards
2 Oscars (Sound, Film Editing)
7 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Ed Harris), Supporting Actress (Kathleen Quinlan), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Visual Effects, Original Score)
2 BAFTAs (Special Effects, Production Design)
3 BAFTA nominations (Cinematography, Editing, Sound)
1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure Film)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“In the end, this failed mission seems like the most impressive achievement of the entire space program: a triumph not of planning but of inspired improvisation.” — Terrence Rafferty, The New Yorker

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“filmmakers combined elements most go to the movies for — drama, comedy, suspense, thrills, and tug of the heart. After reading Lost Moon I’ve come to appreciate the William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert screenplay the more. Given the archival detail Lovell and Kluger documented, getting a good portion of it into a 140-minute movie was its own remarkable feat.” — le0pard13, It Rains… You Get Wet

Verdict

What could have been one of the US space program’s greatest tragedies turned out to be one of its greatest successes, a sensation that is conveyed by Ron Howard’s thrilling rendition of events. The film is too emotionally manipulative for some palates, but by and large it works magnificently for me. Bonus points are earnt for rejecting sycophancy in favour of depicting the people involved as human beings who endured and triumphed in extraordinary circumstances.

#5 will be… reached at 88mph.

Interstellar (2014)

2015 #110
Christopher Nolan | 169 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Nine months on from its theatrical debut, I’ve managed to remain remarkably spoiler-free about Interstellar, the ninth feature from director Christopher Nolan. “Matthew McConaughey lives on a farm and somehow ends up in space with Anne Hathaway,” is about all I knew going in. That and the somewhat divisive critical reception it had received, leaving what many had assumed could be an Oscar favourite with a disappointing tally of nominations (and its studio to have backed the wrong horse, resulting in Selma’s even poorer showing — but that’s a story for another day). I don’t consider myself a so-called ‘Nolanite’, but I have enjoyed most of his pictures (I didn’t love Inception as much as many, but still placed it third on my top ten that year), and found Interstellar to be no exception.

The story (beyond “the McConaissance spreads into space”) sees a near-future Earth where most of the crops have died and mankind is struggling to survive. The US government even pretends the space race was a hoax, in order to put future generations off attempting such innovations. Former test pilot Cooper (McConaughey) holds little truck with such BS, trying to raise his kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (a memorable Mackenzie Foy), to be a mite more intelligent. During one of the many dust storms that engulf their community, strange pockets of gravity in Murph’s bedroom point Cooper to somewhere secret where some people he used to know are doing something secret that, ultimately, sends Coop into space on a mission from which he may never return. Murph is not best pleased.

More plot happens. Interstellar is the kind of film where you could get an awful long way through the story just trying to explain the setup. That’s a certain style of storytelling, and in its own way a positive one — a plot that is constantly moving and updating, rather than one that presents a basic setup, runs on the spot with it for a while, then wraps it up. The latter is how most narratives unfold, which is why reviews can so often summarise said setup and that’s fine. Nonetheless, Interstellar’s first act goes on too long, and could do with a good trim. (For an alternative view on why the first act is in some respects the best part of the film and needed more development, read ghostof82’s review. I don’t disagree, but I do think to give that area more focus would’ve necessitated a wholly different movie.) It’s important to set up Coop’s home life on Earth, as well as the near-future world from which the story springs, but all this could be achieved much more economically than it is here. This is a movie, not a miniseries: sometimes it pays to get a wriggle on. The whole film could’ve done with such a tighten, in fact, not just the sometimes-aimless first act and the flat-out overlong finale.

Flipside: maybe this is a “first viewing” problem. How many great films are there where, on the second or third or fourth viewing, you just wish it was a bit longer, had a bit more for you to see? Last time I re-watched The Lord of the Rings I was amazed how quickly they flew by, and that was in their extended form too. Yes, I’m now one of those people who thinks 12 hours of people walking across New Zealand countryside isn’t nearly enough. But I digress. I don’t know if Interstellar is one of those films that would end up with you wishing there was more of it, but if it is, well, there’s already some there.

Based on a skim through online reaction, some viewers would indeed love even more, while others would despise it. One thing I find interesting about this apparently diverse reaction is that you can find an abundance of negative/semi-negative comments and reviews by people who write such things, but nonetheless the average user scores on the likes of IMDb and Letterboxd remain high. Maybe it goes down better with (for want of a better generalisation) the wider audience than film critic/blogger types?

For many (though not all), criticism/acceptance seems to hinge on the aforementioned final act. Without getting into spoilers, then, “it’s too far-fetched” is one criticism I’ve seen. Of a science fiction movie. I guess it depends what you’re expecting. The rest of the film is grounded in realistic or plausible science, so when it really pushes at the boundaries of the unknown at the end, some people struggle to accept that. But the vast majority of what we see isn’t yet possible — it’s all made-up science fiction (albeit based on real theories and, in some cases, expanded from existing technology) — so what’s wrong with a third act that does the same but in a more extreme fashion? Because it is, at least in part, inspired by some genuine theories. (So much work went into the science that it merited a 50-minute documentary on the Blu-ray. Which I haven’t watched, so I suppose it might say it’s all poppycock. Considering the film has inspired at least two genuine academic papers, though, I’m inclined to say not.) I think it’s very much a case of “your mileage may vary”. For all the people who think it goes too far but only at the end, I’m sure there are just as many viewers who thought the ending was exactly as daft and/or reasonable as the rest of the film, depending on their tolerance level for sci-fi.

From a filmmaking perspective, there is surely nothing to fault. The visuals are incredible. As you’d expect, the IMAX footage looks absolutely stunning. Every time the Blu-ray reverted back to 2.40:1 I was a little disappointed. A sneaky part of me thinks Warner deliberately make these sequences look less good to ramp up the quality of the IMAX footage (I felt the same about The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises on Blu-ray), but maybe I’m just being paranoid. The effects work is also sublime, once again demonstrating the awesomeness of modelwork for spacecraft and the like. The CGI vistas and space phenomena are nothing to be sniffed at either, mind. There’s also a particularly interesting featurette about how they created zero-G. Impressively, even in behind-the-scenes footage, where you can see the wires, it still sometimes looks like the cast are genuinely floating. (On another technical point, more than a few reviews complain of the sound design, specifically the music being too loud. Either the film has been remixed for home release or it just isn’t a problem on a home-sized surround sound system, because I had no such issues.)

A semi-regular criticism of Nolan’s work is the lack of focus on characters or emotion, often sidelined for an epic scope or tricksy narrative. Interstellar certainly has a… debatable climax, and it definitely has an epic scope too, but it’s also one of the most character-driven and emotional films on Nolan’s CV. In particular, there are strong performances from McConaughey and Jessica Chastain (as an older Murph); Anne Hathaway is largely understated, but slivers of emotion seep through when appropriate; and Michael Caine actually gets to do a bit of Acting in a Nolan film for a change, rather than just turning up as a wise old dispenser of exposition — though don’t worry, he does that too. One of the stand-outs for me was David Gyasi, getting a role that was subtly stronger and more thought-provoking than several of his more famous colleagues, and executing it with aplomb too. Similarly, the voices of semi-sentient robots TARS and CASE — Bill Irwin and Josh “he’ll always be ‘that guy from Dirt’ to me” Stewart, respectively — are highly entertaining. Apparently they were inspired by Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is another mark in their favour, though thankfully they’re not just a rip-off used for comic relief.

Interstellar is a “big” movie — it’s full of big ideas, a big scope, big emotions, big stakes (the entire future survival of mankind!) Some people love that kind of scale; others hate it. Whichever camp you’re in, a bad or good movie (respectively) can sway you away. It’s tough to say which of those Interstellar is with any degree of objectivity, because so many people have had so many different reactions, from outright love to outright disgust. I’d say it’s certainly not perfect: it’s too long, and the qualities of the ending are debatable for all kinds of reasons — not least that any sense of it being a twist (which is how it’s structured) is negated by it being eminently guessable 2½ hours before it’s very, very slowly explained to us.

For all that, though, I loved it a little bit. It’s a spectacle, but a thoughtful one. Even if it doesn’t develop those thoughts as fully or comprehensively as it could, and arguably should, it really tries. If a few more big-budget spectacle-driven movies could manage even that these days, we’d all be better off for it.

5 out of 5

Interstellar debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:15pm and 8pm.

For All Mankind (1989)

2009 #42
Al Reinert | 77 mins | TV (HD)

For All MankindFor All Mankind tells the story of NASA’s Apollo missions to the Moon using only NASA’s own footage of the real missions.

It’s not a documentary in the sense that most people perceive the form — i.e. a highly realistic presentation of the facts — but instead something a little more interpretive, aiming to recreate the feeling and experience of travelling to the moon, not the hard facts of who went when and how it was done. As such it is both beautiful and artistic, featuring stunning photography that has been sensitively edited and scored.

In this regard, it makes In the Shadow of the Moon look like a Hollywood remake. While they follow the same tack — telling the tale of the Moon missions with just the testimony of the astronauts, treating it as one big mission rather than taking them all in strict chronological order — For All Mankind does it with a greater sense of artistry. Where Shadow feels like a typical documentary, with talking heads and onscreen identification of who’s speaking, Mankind just uses original footage and astronaut’s narration, never bothering to identify the speaker. Both styles have their place, and Shadow adds a great deal to the story with its retrospective comments by the astronauts, but the glorious footage and skilled editing of Mankind — and the added wonder of seeing it in HD, it must be said — leaves one with a sense of awe that isn’t as present in the more informative Shadow.

These two films make an excellent pair then, but For All Mankind’s beauty provides the superior experience.

5 out of 5

For All Mankind placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)

2009 #40
David Sington | 96 mins | TV | U / PG

In the Shadow of the MoonIn the Shadow of the Moon tells the story of NASA’s Apollo missions using only contemporary footage and the words of the men who actually walked on the Moon.

The telling is dominated by the words of the actual astronauts, describing their personal experiences and feelings. Rather than following a mission-by-mission chronology it mixes all their stories together, thereby telling the tale of a journey to the Moon and exploring its surface only once. It’s a neat way of editing it, albeit essentially borrowed from For All Mankind, because it avoids repetition while also covering a variety of perspectives. The typically reticent Neil Armstrong is conspicuous by his unsurprising absence, but this allows the personalities of some of the others to come out more (Buzz Aldrin features relatively little too, for example), perhaps none more so than Mike Collins, the man ‘left behind’ while Armstrong and Aldrin stepped into the history books. He comes across as thoroughly likable and it’s a pleasure whenever he’s on screen.

Narration is limited to a couple of brief intertitles and that contained on archive footage, culled not only from NASA archives but also newsreels, adverts, speeches and so forth. In this it manages to avoid using some of the more obvious and over-played clips, such as Kennedy’s famous “not because it is easy, but because it is hard” speech, while unearthing some interesting bits of its own, like Armstrong’s parents on a game show the day he became an astronaut, being asked how they’d feel should he happen to be the first man on the Moon. Such found footage is often used to put the missions in the context of wider events at appropriate junctures, such as Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement during the time Apollo 8 led the first men to orbit the Moon, or showing the whole world watching the TV broadcast of Armstrong stepping on to the Moon for the first time.

Although this external perspective is welcome, while being kept to an appropriate minimum, it’s difficult not to note that this is exactly what the HBO dramatisation, From the Earth to the Moon, did at these points. Other points of emphasis feel similarly culled, such as the way Apollo 13 is almost glossed over, but there are only so many ways of telling the significant elements of the same story and any accusations of plagiarism, from either HBO’s series or For All Mankind, aren’t seriously justified.

A closing perspective treads the fine line that leads toward sentiment and preachiness, but errs on the right side of awe and significance. Some have criticised the end for having too much religion and spirituality and not presenting a conflicting, ‘accurate’ scientific perspective. As a staunch atheist, I found no such problem: beliefs are there to an extent, but they’re not overpowering and there’s no apparent religious agenda, as some critics might have you believe.

In the Shadow of the Moon may not offer the plain facts and figures of how we went to the Moon and who did it when, but it does present the reflections of the men who risked their lives to further the knowledge and reach of our species. Their thoughts on this are invaluable.

4 out of 5

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.