The Right Stuff
May 1, 2002
Starring: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, Lance Henriksen, Donald Moffat, Levon Helm, Mary Jo Deschanel, ,
When The Right Stuff came out in 1983 it was a big hit with critics but failed to get off the launch pad with audiences. The film disappeared off of almost everyone’s radar for the next ten years, only appearing semi-regularly on cable movie channels. Almost nothing has been written about the movie critically until Tom Charity’s excellent British Film Institute book, published in 1997. After a clunky movie-only DVD (spread over two sides of a single disc), the folks at Warner Brothers have finally given The Right Stuff its due respect with a fantastic two DVD set.
Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name, The Right Stuff covers the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union with the focus on the Mercury 7—astronauts who trained to become the first Americans in outer space. The film begins with Chuck Yeager (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 men possess. Yeager doesn’t break the sound barrier for fame or money. He does it for the challenge, to beat what he calls “the demon that lives in the thin air.” 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.
One reason why the film may not have connected with audiences is the unusual take on the subject matter. Director Philip 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 are cocky braggarts (Dennis Quaid’s Gordo Cooper), materialistic opportunists (Fred Ward’s Gus Grissom) and naively patriotic (Ed Harris’ John Glen). 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.”
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 can even make 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 way Kaufman photographs Shepard, it looks like he just stepped out of a western, which only reinforces his iconic stature.
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 and Jeff Goldblum were all up-and-coming actors and this movie was supposed to put them on the map. They and the rest of the cast do a wonderful job breathing life into these famous historical figures, warts and all.
The second DVD features two scene specific audio commentaries. This is a recent trend that eliminates dead air by only showing footage from the movie that features comments from the participants. The first track features a good portion of the cast, from the major players like Ed Harris and Dennis Quaid, to minor ones like Donald Moffat and Pamela Reed. The track starts off appropriately with Chuck Yeager’s comments on the factuality of the scene where he breaks the sound barrier. The cast all tell good stories about making the movie and one gets the impression that the actors who played the astronauts really bonded while filming—a connection that still stands today.
The second track features select crew from the movie. It is more informative and technical in nature. Co-producer Robert Chartoff mentions that they got Barbara Hershey for her role only a few days before her first scene. Fellow producer Irwin Winkler remembers that they had not anticipated the enormity of the film’s scope and the challenge was to adjust to working on a such a large scale.
“Realizing The Right Stuff” is an excellent retrospective documentary on the making of the film, from the optioning of Tom Wolfe’s book to the end of principal photography. Dennis Quaid talks about how badly he wanted to play “Gordo” Cooper but Ken Wahl was set to do the role. As luck would have it, he had to drop out and Quaid auditioned. He got the role instead of auditioning for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983)! The cast and crew tell all sorts of fascinating stories and even though the difficulties with William Goldman’s initial drafts of the screenplay are not even mentioned (for more on this check out Charity’s book), this featurette is an excellent companion piece to the commentaries.
“T-20 Years and Counting” documents the post-production process. This was before CGI and so all the special effects were achieved simply, using models and other low tech methods with results that still hold up today. Interestingly, the film’s box office failure is addressed. Kaufman blames the lack of an initial wide release and the misguided notion that the film was propaganda for John Glenn’s Presidential campaign for its failure at the box office.
“The Real Men with The Right Stuff” puts the film in its proper historical context and takes a look at the real astronauts of the U.S. space program. Chuck Yeager appears again and talks about test pilots and their role (or rather lack thereof) in the space race. In a nice touch, the surviving members of the Mercury 7 are interviewed.
“Additional Scenes” is ten minutes of footage that was cut from the movie. It is obvious why these scenes were cut but should be of interest to fans.
The “Interactive Timeline to Space” provides vintage footage from important dates in the history of the space program right up to the tragic Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.
“John Glenn: American Hero” is a feature length PBS documentary on the famous astronaut and takes a look at his life and his most recent achievement of being the oldest person in outer space.
The Right Stuff is an important film whose legacy can be felt even today. Without it, there would have been no Apollo 13 (1995) or Contact (1997). This forgotten film has finally been given a decent DVD treatment and hopefully this will lead to renewed interest.