Movies We LoveMonkeys? 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 TV. Ol’ Gus, he did all right.

Ol’ Gus is Gus Grissom, the second US man to be shot into space, though his ride becomes tarnished when he loses his capsule, the hatch blowing before it can be pulled from the water.

The Right Stuff is about the early days of the space program, but it opens with the breaking of the sound barrier by Chuck Yeager in 1947. Yeager, a WWII pilot known for pushing the envelope volunteers to attempt a feat that has resulted in the deaths of other pilots who dared chase the demon.

But Yeager in the X1 succeeds in chasing down the demon, reaching Mach 1 for the first time. Yeager is the epitome of the right stuff, the guy who breaks records, flying faster and higher, surviving the dawn of a new space age and the failure of his aircraft. He’s so tough he’s still chewing his gum after ejecting from his burning plane.

This is a time when space travel is a dream, a theory, a possibility but not a reality. Rockets not only don’t launch, they blow up. Still, the US is in a race with the USSR to be the first to put a man into space.

But before a man can be shot into space, the right men have to be chosen for the job. These are men who not only need that elusive right stuff but also need the right image so they can be sold to the public as America’s newest and greatest heroes.

Pilots are eager to get one of the handful of openings and after a combination of rigorous and sometimes absurd tests the seven astronauts are chosen. Glenn, Shepard, Slayton, Cooper, Carpenter, Grissom and Schirra are names indelibly written into the history of space flight. They’ll have quite a challenge ahead of them manning a space craft where they’re given little input or control. The seven have to put aside personal differences to stand together, demanding to be treated as pilots, not merely occupant observers in the capsule.

The public will be sold the story of seven supermen, the best and bravest pilots in the world, but if they screw the pooch they can go from hero to goat as Gus Grissom discovers.

It’s not so easy having the right stuff.

Why We Love It

The 1983 film was adapted from Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book which pulled the entire space program off of the pedestal it was perched on. Capturing the sprawling irreverence of Wolfe’s work, this was the story behind the Life Magazine picture perfect images designed by a public relations campaign. The seven heroes introduced to the American public were very human and flawed.

There are great flight sequences, punctuated by excellent performances by a group of actors, many introduced to movie goers for the first time. Ed Harris, in his first significant film role impresses as John Glenn, the straight arrow among the group, devoted to his wife and the high ideals of the space program as sold to the American public. Dennis Quaid’s Gordon Cooper is Glenn’s opposite, wild and cocky with a chip on his shoulder. The Right Stuff has the right cast, a great ensemble which includes Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, Donald Moffat and Levon Helm.

The women behind the men don’t have as much to do, but they do it well, particularly Veronica Cartwright as Betty Grissom who endures shattered expectations of getting just a little reward for her life as a pilot’s wife and Mary Jo Deschanel as Annie Glenn who has the nerve to rebuff a visit from Lyndon Johnson.

Director Philip Kaufman created a film that’s big, exciting and funny, with scenes of the wannabe astronauts being put through stress tests, medical examinations, asked to give bodily fluids, willing to sacrifice any semblance of dignity for a chance to be one of the chosen seven to enter a brave new world of flight.

The Moment We Fell in Love

It has to be Yeager’s flight in the X-1 when he breaks the sound barrier, the orange plane streaking across the sky. There’s a sonic boom, a sound never heard before and the observers on the ground think the plane has crashed and there’s momentary gloom before the X-1 reappears.

It’s a great prelude to what’s to come. Yeager’s the ultimate pilot. He’s in it to break the record, even if he has to do it with broken ribs from a fall from his horse.

The Right Stuff revisits Yeager throughout the film; his continued efforts to fly faster and higher are juxtaposed to the training and flights of the Mercury 7 astronauts.

Final Thoughts

Anyone who is interested in the early days of the space program has to see The Right Stuff.  Even if you’re not interested in the early days of the space program the film is still great entertainment with plenty of drama, action and comic relief.  It also has a great score by Bill Conti, though once the main theme gets in your head you’ll have a difficult time getting rid of it.

Archival footage is nicely used to ground the events in their historical context, including the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union battling it out to see who would be the first to put a man into space.

The Right Stuff as a film most certainly has the right stuff.

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