By J.D. Lafrance
When The Right Stuff came out in 1983, pundits were anticipating it to make a big splash at the box office. Based on Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name, Philip Kaufman’s film depicted the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union with the focus on the Mercury 7 — seven astronauts who trained to become the first Americans in outer space. With this kind of patriotic subject matter how could the film not be a big hit? Despite scoring well with critics, The Right Stuff failed to get off the launch pad with audiences.
At the time of its release, the studio backing it decided to market the film in tandem with Mercury 7 astronaut and Ohio Senator John Glenn’s run for the presidency. Mainstream audiences felt that Kaufman’s motion picture was going to be nothing more than an expensive campaign ad and stayed away. The film disappeared off of almost everyone’s radar for several years, only appearing semi-regularly on cable television. However, with anniversary releases on DVD and, more recently, on Blu-Ray, the film has been re-discovered and is generally regarded as an influential cinematic masterpiece.
The film begins with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), a legendary test pilot who was the first man to break the Sound Barrier. He is the perfect embodiment of “the right stuff,” an intangible quality that few people possess. Yeager doesn’t break the Sound Barrier for fame or money. He does it for the challenge, to beat what the film’s narrator (Levon Helm) calls “the demon that lives in the thin air.” There is a scene where Kaufman depicts Yeager riding through the desert on horseback against a very Terrence Malick-esque sunset as if to suggest that the test pilot is akin to a laconic cowboy from a bygone era. Soon, Yeager comes across the rocket-powered Bell X-1, the plane that he will fly to break the Sound Barrier, complete with ominous music and ferocious jet engine sounds. The image of Yeager on horseback staring at a piece of technology that could result in his death sets up a man vs. machine theme that continues on throughout the film.
The give and take between Yeager and his wife Glennis, played wonderfully by Barbara Hershey, during these early scenes is so well done and could be its own short film as she and Sam Shepard convey the unique dynamic between these two people. As the Air Force pitches breaking the Sound Barrier to Yeager, Glennis doesn’t voice her disapproval or fears. She doesn’t have to as the look Hershey gives Shepard says it all. Glennis loves him, but isn’t some subservient housewife as she says later on, “They don’t spend a god-damned thing teaching you how to be the fearless wife of a fearless test pilot.” In many respects, she’s his equal, even challenging him to a race on horseback out in the desert.
The sequence where Yeager breaks the Sound Barrier is beautifully realized with old school visual effects and clever editing. What really helps sell it is the reaction shots of Shepard, even obscured behind a mask, that convey how difficult it must have been. So why does Kaufman spend so much time on Yeager, even having him return intermittently throughout the film as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the Mercury 7 astronauts? Clearly, he sees the legendary test pilot as the epitome of “the right stuff” and this is why he’s never made to look silly and always treated reverentially. In one of his early roles, playwright-turned actor, Sam Shepard is perfectly cast as Chuck Yeager. Physically he doesn’t resemble the man, but with his chiseled good looks and piercing stare, he even makes chewing gum an epic gesture. He doesn’t have much dialogue, but he doesn’t need it because he conveys so much with a look or a simple gesture. The Yeager section is The Right Stuff at its most romantic, photographed by Caleb Deschanel with a slight sepia tone to give the footage the feel of an old photograph.
We soon see a sharp contrast between Yeager and the next group of test pilots that show up to make a name for themselves. Even though he is never asked to train for the missions into outer space, all of the Mercury 7 astronauts live in his shadow and the film constantly compares them to his ideal. We are introduced to Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid sporting the best shit-eating grin ever) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), two cocky pilots who think pretty highly of themselves, but are quickly put in their place. From this point on, whenever the film veers too dangerously close to overt seriousness, Kaufman proceeds to deflate it with comedic moments, usually from Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, two bumbling recruiters who, among many things, show then-Senator Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffat) a reel of what they feel are ideal candidates to go into outer space: circus acrobats, divers, race car drivers, and so on.
The irony is that the NASA recruiters don’t pick the best pilot – Yeager – because he didn’t go to college, but the ones they do get are certainly among the very best. However, Kaufman constantly reminds us that they are not in Yeager’s league via a montage of arduous physical and mental tests where the potential astronauts are sometimes made to look silly, racist and sexist, but this is put in the context of the times and all of these alpha males competing against each other. The potential astronauts are put in humiliating situations that cut through the instantly iconic status that the government attempts place on them and shows them having human frailties just like everyone else. It’s a fascinating duality that gives these astronauts depth. It also doesn’t hurt that the charisma of the actors shines through and you admire these brave men. As Yeager puts it later on in the film, “You think a monkey knows he’s sittin’ on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see? Well, I’ll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that’s on T.V.” What’s interesting is that the film shows how the Mercury 7 were paraded around the press, including a major feature article for Life magazine. The U.S. was in competition with Russia and the government wanted to show that we had men just as capable of going up into outer space as they did.
Looking at The Right Stuff now, it is easy to forget how the now stellar cast was, at the time, relatively unknown. Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Lance Henriksen, Scott Glenn, and Jeff Goldblum were all up-and-coming actors and this film helped put them on the map. The cast is uniformly excellent with Harris, Quaid and Ward as the standouts among the astronauts. It doesn’t hurt that they tend to get more screen-time than the others (poor Henriksen!), but they also make the most of it with Harris playing the all-American Boy Scout and yet managing to go deeper, past the rah-rah façade to show a man who deeply loves his wife as evident in the scene where he tells his harried spouse that if she doesn’t want the Vice-President to come to their house and watch the launch then he will stand by her decision (despite being pressured to do otherwise). Quaid plays the cocky hot shot (“Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?”), and Ward is the gruff one who infamously “screws the pooch,” and was unfairly maligned as the astronaut who made a mistake during his mission. Kaufman does tend to empathize with Grissom in the film and Ward manages to elicit sympathy in what is the lowest point in The Right Stuff as the man even has to defend his actions to his wife (Veronica Cartwright) who is disappointed that she never got to meet Jackie Kennedy like previous astronaut wives.
Speaking of which, I like that Kaufman gives ample screen-time to the wives, showing how they bonded and dealt with the stress of their husbands’ dangerous profession. It also shows their vulnerabilities, like Trudy Cooper’s (Pamela Reed) fear that her husband would die during a mission or Annie Glenn’s (Mary Jo Deschanel) stutter, which makes her so self-conscious that she rarely speaks, which the other wives misinterpret as snobby behavior.
For all of its humor and critique, The Right Stuff certainly doesn’t skimp on awe-inspiring imagery as evident in the wondrous sights on display when Yeager breaks the Sound Barrier or when John Glenn orbits the Earth. The impressive visual effects are as good as anything seen in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the benchmark that all other films of this type are measured against. In the latter sequence, Glenn sees all sorts of debris that looks like fireflies, which Kaufman juxtaposes with an aboriginal campfire at night. It is fascinating, almost abstract imagery, which he inserts into this epic, historical biopic.
In 1979, independent producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler outbid Universal Pictures for the movie rights to Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff. They hired legendary screenwriter William Goldman to adapt it into screenplay form and his version focused on the astronauts while entirely ignoring Chuck Yeager. United Artists agreed to finance the film and the producers were not satisfied with Goldman’s take on the book. He was unable to find a dramatically convincing way to contrast the experience and outlook of the test pilots and the astronauts, leaving the former out of his script. They approached Philip Kaufman to direct and he shared their dissatisfaction with the script. He was hired in 1980 and Goldman quit the project. Kaufman started off by penning a 35-page memo outlining his take on the material. The filmmaker cited films he admired – The Searchers (1956) and The Grand Illusion (1937) – and that he would emulate their “rambling, episodic quality,” in which “truth is found along the way.” When Wolfe showed no interest in adapting his own book, Kaufman wrote a draft in eight weeks. He restored Yeager to the story because “if you’re tracing how the future began, the future in space travel, it began really with Yeager and the world of the test pilot. The astronauts descended from them.”
After the financial failure of Heaven’s Gate (1980), United Artists put The Right Stuff in turnaround and The Ladd Company stepped in with an estimated $17 million for the budget. According to Alan Ladd Jr., the final budget was closer to $27 million. Kaufman spent a lot of time early on trying to figure out how to do the visual effects. Initially, he looked at what George Lucas was doing with the Star Wars films, but Kaufman found that what “worked in outer space for George didn’t work on Earth. They didn’t have the same reality that we were looking for.” And so, Kaufman wanted to keep with “the theme of the film that what if we started jerry-rigging these things.” To that end, he hired experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson, who was “exploring cosmic mysteries” in his short films, to create transitions from night to day and the background of the Earth as seen from high-flying planes or orbiting spacecraft. In lieu of creating a lot of expensive visual effects from scratch, Kaufman accumulated 300,000 feet of NASA stock footage.
According to special visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez, the first special effects were too clean looking and they wanted a “dirty, funky early NASA look.” Kaufman was so unhappy with the results that he shut down work on them and fired many of the effects crew. Gutierrez and his team started from scratch, employing unconventional techniques like going up a hill with model airplanes on wires and fog machines to create clouds, or shooting model F-104s from a crossbow device and capturing their flight with as many as four cameras. A Mercury spacecraft was built from the original NASA molds and an X-1 mockup was constructed from old parts while the only B-29 bomber still flying was used.
Most of the film was shot in and around San Francisco, Kaufman’s hometown, and he transformed Hamilton Air Force Base in Marin County into a studio. The desert sequences were shot near Edwards Air Force Base. Yeager was hired as a technical consultant on the film. He took several of the actors flying, studied the storyboards and special effects, pointing out errors. Barbara Hershey remembered that during filming, he would call her Glennis and his son would call her mom. However, Yeager and Sam Shepard were wary of each other, at first, but became friends. To prepare for their roles, Kaufman gave the actors playing the seven astronauts an extension collection of videotapes to study.
Kaufman gave his five editors a list of documentary images that the film required and they searched the country for film from NASA, the Air Force and Bell Aircraft vaults. They also discovered Russian stock footage that had not been seen by human eyes in 30 years. The director’s rather exacting methods met with resistance from The Ladd Company and he threatened to quit several times. To make matters worse, in December 1982, 8,000 feet of film portraying Glenn’s trip in orbit and return to Earth disappeared or was stolen from Kaufman’s editing facility in Berkeley, California. The missing footage was never found and had to be reconstructed from copies.
At once reverential and also irreverent towards its subject matter, The Right Stuff could have easily been tonally all over the place if it weren’t for Kaufman’s assured touch. One reason why the film may not have connected with audiences is the unusual take on the subject matter. Kaufman tends to go back and forth from a reverential look at these men to parodying them as well. Only Yeager is given a purely worshipful treatment because he represents the epitome of “the right stuff.” However, Kaufman isn’t afraid to show that the Mercury 7 astronauts had their flaws. They were cocky braggarts (Gordon Cooper), materialistic opportunists (Gus Grissom) and naively patriotic (John Glenn). Audiences of the day were probably expecting a straightforward historical biopic that put all of these men on pedestals. Kaufman was more interested in presenting these men as interesting, flawed human beings. They may have not been as iconic as Yeager, but, in the end, did have “the right stuff.”
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Farber, Stephen. “Rocket’s Red Glare.” DGA Quarterly. Spring 2012.
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King, Susan. “Looking Back at a Film with The Right Stuff.” Los Angeles Times. June 7, 2003.
Naha, Ed. “The Right Fx for The Right Stuff.” Starlog. July 1983.
O’Neill, Patrick Daniel. “Scott Glenn – The Fast-Gun Astronaut.” Starlog. August 1985.
Rushfield, Richard. “Director Philip Kaufman on What Makes The Right Stuff, 30 Years Later.” Yahoo Movies. November 15, 2003.
Schickel, Richard. “Saga of a Magnificent Seven.” Time. October 3, 1983.
Wilford, John Noble. “The Right Stuff: From Space to Screen.” The New York Times. October 16, 1983.
Williams, Christian. “A Story That Pledges Allegiance to Drama and Entertainment.” Washington Post. October 20, 1983.