It must have seemed like a good idea at the time; a movie based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 best-selling novel to be produced for The Ladd Company at a then staggering cost of $22 million. But apart from being a rather self-congratulatory, occasionally unvarnished and deliberately fictionalized tribute to that last breed of American space cowboy, who dared risk life and limb in an effort to venture beyond the boundaries of our tiny planet into the unknown, Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) remains a somewhat turgid and lengthy melodrama that occasionally veers into abject tedium, ably averted at the last possible instance by Bill Conti’s bombastic central theme and some stellar performances given by relative unknowns on the cusp of their own stardom. Upon its premiere The Right Stuff garnered high critical praise, the late Roger Ebert leading the charge, saying “It joins a short list of experimental epics: movies ambitious (in their) reach through time and subject matter, but that consider each scene as intently as an art film.” Unfortunately, audiences stayed away in droves, the domestic gross of $21,192,102 a considerable disappointment.
All accolades aside, The Right Stuff is hardly an out and out failure. Still, at 3 hours 13 minutes it tends to drag; Kaufman’s screenplay too absorbed – nee, obsessed – in the particulars of aeronautic training, plodding a rather heavy-handed balance between representing these men simply as men (with all their fallibilities and foibles intact) not altogether successful in coinciding with the spin from distant memory; that iconic trademarking and deification of mere mortals into galvanized American heroes…at least, of the moment. There’s a narrative awkwardness to the story that Kaufman never quite overcomes, though visually Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography is on very solid ground – particularly during the compelling high-flying sequences. Kaufman was, in fact, quite determined to make his movie as real as possible. All of his hand-picked actors were required to take flying lessons – to experience first-hand the equilibrium-altering side effects of supersonic travel. And while some of the reaction shots inserted into the movie would undoubtedly have to be faked for the camera, others proved legitimate, including Dennis Quaid’s stomach-churning moment high in the clouds.
In retrospect, The Right Stuff had the misfortune of ill-timing; being green lit by United Artists for a then record sum of $20 million mere months before the company experienced its own fiscal implosion due to the colossal demise of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). Worse, William Goldman’s original screenplay was utterly frowned upon by Kaufman, who came third in line to the project after directors Michael Ritchie and John Avildsen had each backed off. While Goldman’s screenplay concentrated on assessing the astronauts as patriots, Kaufman elected to do a total rewrite that became increasingly more fascinated with the men - as men; tough, uncompromising, fundamentally flawed and occasionally riddled with self-doubt and anxiety. Put into turnaround shortly thereafter, The Right Stuff – one of the most sought after ‘buzz’ properties in Hollywood – was eventually snatched up by the Ladd Company for a cool $17 million; far less an initial outlay than necessary to see the project through to completion.
In Hollywood, the resurrection of The Right Stuff as ‘the movie to be seen in’ began to garner great appeal among a sect of struggling actors. Indeed, Kaufman chose to populate his movie with virtual unknowns rather than well-established stars; his reasoning two-fold. First, stars cost money. With its lengthy gestation and lavishly planned action sequences the movie could not afford a star, much less seven. But Kaufman was also concerned that The Right Stuff should not be a vehicle for one or two ‘name above the title’ celebrities; rather an ensemble piece recreating (as close as possible) the shared experiences of real fly boys who made the successful transition from hot shot pilots into outer space superstars. Kaufman was also quite adamant about including Chuck Yeager in the movie. Goldman’s screenplay had jettisoned all references to Yeager – concentrating exclusively on the seven astronauts who arguably ‘made history’. Kaufman’s approach was more comprehensive. It not only acknowledged Yeager’s early contributions directly responsible for advancements in the space program, but it also made Yeager a central figure in the movie; the real Chuck Yeager becoming a consultant for authenticity. Indeed, Kaufman was determined to get all of his particulars just right.
Regrettably the time-honored cliché ‘the devil is in the details’ seems to have run amuck in The Right Stuff. The movie features fascinating back stories and meticulous recreations of the arduous rigors of military testing endured by all of the potential space program candidates. But the movie’s timeline tends to suffer along this back and forth of NASA’s tumultuous early history; the dramatic arc frequently interrupted with inserts of yet more detail and more vignettes; independently compelling, though cumulatively failing to gel and lumbering at a snail’s pace without affording the audience any sort of anticipated predictability. In a suspense/thriller the ‘keep ‘em guessing’ narrative structure most certainly has its’ place. But in drama it tends to stave off or even deflate the level of dramatic intensity that ought to be building upon itself.
To keep his budget in check, Kaufman shot most of his movie in and around San Francisco, including a convincing reenactment of John Glenn’s New York tickertape parade. He also utilized virtual unknowns to populate his cast. Today, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid and Barbara Hershey are decidedly well-known. But in 1983 each was a Hollywood upstart. Arguably, the actresses with the most distinguished pedigrees in The Right Stuff were Veronica Cartwright and Kim Stanley – each having begun their careers in the mid-1950’s; Cartwright’s high profile turn in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) already ensuring her place in movie-land immortality. In fact, Kaufman had worked with Cartwright before on his 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; a pleasurable experience for both. Kaufman also tapped into a stroke of genius when he cast the Bologna Brothers, an improvisational comedy troupe, as the film’s paparazzi; their frenetic flashbulb clicking acrobatics heightening the immediacy and excitement synonymous with the early years of the space race.
Employing retired Lt. Col. Duncan Wilmore as a consultant, shooting The Right Stuff began in March 1982 at the abandoned Hamilton Air Force Base in San Francisco where many full size aircraft, scale models and special effects were incorporated to replicate Edwards Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral. For the flying sequences, convincing miniatures and models were produced by USFX Studios. To add even more authenticity, Kaufman fell back on the inclusion of actual newsreel footage cleverly integrated with other B&W inserts newly photographed and appropriately aged; all of it spliced together as a narrative bridge between sequences spanning – in some cases – years.
The Right Stuff opens big – literally – in the stark arid spaces of Muroc Army Air Field in 1947 where high speed aircraft, including the rocket-powered X-1 are being tested in an attempt to break the sound barrier. Base liaison officer, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is offered the first opportunity to test the X-1. Regrettably, while horseback riding with his wife, Glennis (Barbara Hershey), Yeager collides with a tree branch and breaks his ribs. Keeping his injury a secret, Yeager confides in fellow pilot Jack Ridley (Levon Helm) who improvises a broomstick as a lever to seal the X-1 hatch. Yeager breaks the sound barrier and is marked as a rising star. From this ‘modest’ victory the narrative timeline advances to 1953 and Edwards Air Force Base. By day, Yeager strikes up a friendly rivalry with fellow test pilot, Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson). But in the evening the men gather at Pancho Barnes’ (Kim Stanley) watering hole where aspiring ‘pudknockers’ Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Virgil Grissom (Fred Ward) wait their turn to challenge and eclipse the reputations of their predecessors.
With already a lot on his narrative plate, director Kaufman further complicates his story by dividing his time between the men and their wives; two strangely separate halves of the same equation. The resident spokeswoman for this enclave of devoted spouses is Gordo’s wife, Trudy (Pamela Reed) who readily fears she will wind up a widow. After all, Gordo’s a loose cannon; his head in the clouds even when his feet are firmly on the ground. While mutual concern and emotional suffrage binds all of the wives together, testosterone-driven ego is at the forefront of Kaufman exploration of the movie’s male bonding. Regrettably, this elemental strength in the narrative is repeatedly blunted by Kaufman’s intrusive jump cuts advancing his rather ineffectually condensing of a decade into mere minutes of screen time. While the first and last third of The Right Stuff move with gruff breakneck pace, condensing history for art’s sake, the middle section repeatedly stalls in its attempt to get to know these astronauts better – both as heroes and, more importantly, as men. We leap ahead from 1953 to 1957; the successful USSR launch of Sputnik sending ripples of Cold War anxiety throughout the entire American military complex.
The Mercury 7 program is kicked off with a commencement of grueling competition; the biggest and the brightest test pilots suddenly caught in a race to out-perform one another and distinguish themselves as potential candidates in the eyes of the nation. The list of hopefuls includes rivals U.S. Marine John Glenn (Ed Harris) and U.S. Navy pilot Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) as well as Cooper, Grissom and others. Meanwhile, after being severely burnt and nearly killed, Yeager sets a new altitude record in his Lockheed NF-104A rocket jet. The last act of the film reverts to chronicling the Mercury missions of Shepard, Grissom, Glenn and Cooper. The narrative develops a grittier ‘us’ (U.S.) vs. ‘them’ (USSR) mentality; the overall atmosphere of competition more taut and laden with misapprehensions, disappointments and the ever-present assault of public scrutiny and exploitation visited upon the astronauts and their families by a ravenous free press. The film’s narrative concludes with Yeager’s abortive Lockheed NF-104A test flight. Caught in a perilous tailspin, Yeager manages a high-speed ejection, rising from the ashes of his doomed craft, badly burned but able to walk to the ambulance, hence proving that he still has ‘the right stuff!’
Although critically praised, and despite its 4 Oscar wins, The Right Stuff was not a financial success. Only part of its box office misfire can be blamed on the screenplay. The performances are uniformly solid. But by 1983, space was hardly the ‘new frontier’ or daydream of the Kennedy/Camelot era. In point of fact, the movies had been running rings around the moon and elsewhere in orbit ever since they had learned to flicker. And – all fiction of the 2001/Star Wars ilk aside – The Right Stuff is really more about the ties that bind here on earth than a journey to the stars and/or escape into interstellar infinity.
Viewed today, The Right Stuff is so obviously searching for some grander verisimilitude that it never quite achieves, despite Philip Kaufman’s best intentions and an exhaustive search of the NASA, air force and Bell Aircraft film vaults. Dailies were arguably a cause for concern, The Ladd Company struggling to restrain Kaufman from his costly fact-finding mission that unearthed, among other treasures, hours of Russian space footage unseen in thirty years. At one point, Kaufman threatened to walk off the project, necessitating an intervention and renegotiation of the terms of his contract. As an interesting postscript, footage of John Glenn’s orbit around the earth mysteriously vanished from Kaufman’s Berkeley editing room in Dec. 1982. It was never recovered.
In retrospect The Right Stuff is an interesting time capsule of an era when the moon was yet a mysterious orb in our night sky untouched by the hand of man. The movie does, in fact, recapture and bottle much of the essential blind optimism that was ever-present during the Kennedy era and beyond. But it never really reaches the anticipated heights as a high-flyer’s adventure yarn, nor does its’ melodrama seem to rise above the obviousness of history itself. No one can fault the cast. Geoffrey Kirkland’s production design is A-1. Ditto for W. Stewart Campbell, Richard J. Lawrence and Peter Romero’s art direction, and George R. Nelson and Pat Pending’s set decoration. All of the elements for a true cinema masterwork are present and accounted for; and yet something remains wanting from the exercise. I leave it to the first time viewer to deduce what the absence is. Regardless, the overall dramatic arc is unevenly handled at best. The Right Stuff is sort of ‘right’ - but not quite.
We can say the same of Warner Home Video’s new Blu-ray; a thoroughly underwhelming affair. Difficult to say where the fault lies, but the film doesn’t really snap together in 1080p, the 1.78:1 image looking very clean and considerably brighter than its DVD counterpart. Skin tones are decidedly warm, contrast looking better in close-up than long and medium shots. The B&W footage is picture-boxed, its grain structure more obvious (as it should be). I have to say that the overall sharpness – or lack thereof – was my biggest concern. The Right Stuff ought to have been a visually arresting viewing experience. But Warner’s Blu-ray looks only marginally crisper in hi-def than standard definition, without ever delivering the ‘wow’ factor visually. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the image, and yet nothing that immediately grabs the attention either.
Warner’s TruHD 5.1 audio exhibits a rather dated characteristic, again – advancing on all levels from the DVD (as one should expect) but hardly an ‘out of this world’ sonic experience. Bill Conti’s impressive theme and underscoring get the biggest nod; visceral and soaring from all channels. Extras are all housed on a second DVD disc. Yep, Warner continues to short shrift its extra content on DVD rather than transposing and upgrading the video quality to 1080p. The extras are mostly from the 2003 2-disc SE DVD – two, 25 min. scene specific commentaries with cast and crew lumped together as ‘The Journey and the Mission’ and three documentaries cumulatively running just under an hour: Realizing the Right Stuff (21:06), T-20 Years and Counting (11:29), and The Real Men with The Right Stuff (15:31). Add to this a few choice deleted scenes and, more importantly, the hour and a half long documentary, John Glenn: American Hero – well worth the price of admission. Finally, Warner has padded out the extras with a Digi-book and personal greeting from Philip Kaufman, inserted as a separate paper rather sloppily folded (at least on my copy). One wonders why they didn’t simply spend the extra few cents to print Kaufman’s ‘letter’ on page one of the digi-booklet. Bottom line: recommended with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)