January 10, 2014

The Right Stuff: Fulfilling the American Myth

The Right Stuff, directed by Philip Kaufman and based on a Tom Wolfe novel.

The myth of the American dream has made historic legends out of the loners who venture boldly into the wilderness. The conquistadors that discovered this continent were brave explorers, and the pioneers of the frontier possessed a courageous spirit. It’s easy to fall prey to the myths if we aren’t careful. It’s far less exciting to think of the arriving Europeans as vicious opportunists out for material gain. The old-school cowboys are presented as “real men”, but they also were obsessed with gold and power. Where is this all leading, you ask? In our modern age, do we have our own daring individuals willing to do anything to reach new territory? In Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff, the heroes are test pilots risking serious danger to fly faster and higher than anyone else. His center piece is Chuck Yeager, the first to break the sound barrier and a legend from that group. The accomplishments were remarkable, but they faded into view once the public grabbed onto a new frontier. Space travel would dominate the U.S. landscape during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the reasons are more complicated than a quest of discovery.

Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film adaptation of The Right Stuff does a remarkable job translating Wolfe’s ideas to the screen. Although the author disliked the film, it presents an intriguing look at both Yeager (Sam Shepard) and the seven Mercury astronauts. That first group of space travelers must face the prospect of being “spam in a can” while being heralded as the world’s greatest pilots. Was it all marketing spin, or did these guys really have the “right stuff”? Early American rockets always blew up, so even putting themselves on top of them was a big risk. Yeager’s statement on that point is a key moment where he (and the film) endorses those guys as the real deal. They might not have the flight records of Yeager or Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson), but their bravery isn’t manufactured. When Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) enters the capsule to be the first man in space, there’s a real chance he won’t survive. The scientists were working in uncharted territory, and they needed astronauts willing to trust them and risk everything.

Ed Harris in The Right Stuff

This 192-minute picture is very ambitious, and Kaufman risks losing the audience by putting so much in the story. It’s refreshing to note how breezy the pace feels right up to the end. The longer running time allows Kaufman the chance to include quiet moments like John Glenn (Ed Harris) marveling at “fireflies” in space during his orbital flight. We also get to know how things work at both Edwards Air Force Base and within the space program. Yeager dominates the first act but gives way to the astronauts for a majority of the remaining time. When he returns for one more flight, it doesn’t feel unnecessary and connects us with his original achievements. This is epic storytelling that stays personal despite having lofty aspirations. We rarely get the sense that Kaufman is reaching to connect the major themes. The character depth keeps it grounded and gives time to many in the talented ensemble.

Astronauts and scientists in The Right Stuff

Another positive is the humor, which was a key element of Wolfe’s book. There’s an extended sequence of scientists testing the candidates in ridiculous physical ways. It was impossible to know how the human body would react to space, so they were looking for any evidence of a superior make-up. The true moment of Shepard needing to urinate in the capsule on the launch pad is another fun scene. It reveals the silliness in putting a guy inside such a cramped spot to do the impossible. The image of a chimp taking flights before the men is an exercise in humiliation. The real test pilots would never do that! This conflict between the guys in white lab coats and the pilots was constant throughout the space program. When Glenn and the others stand up and demand control, it’s a key event that changes the game. They’re no longer test subjects with little control over their lives.

The challenge to that theory comes with Gus Grissom’s (Fred Ward) second flight, which becomes a failure when he blows the hatch and sinks the capsule. There are questions about the real-life accuracy of this scene, but it works in this film to show the human fallibility that frustrates the scientists. They care more about the data from the vehicle than the man inside it. Meanwhile, the public gives ticker tape parades to the heroes who show U.S. dominance. Opportunists like Vice President Lyndon Johnson use the guys and their wives to further their own career. The pressures are far greater than simply performing the mission; that’s the easy part. Kaufman shows the competing forces that have little to do with flying. When Glenn backs his wife in refusing to see Johnson, it’s heroic because it pushes back against the manipulation of their great feats. For at least that day, an astronaut strikes back and takes control.

Introducing the Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff

It’s surprising to note how rarely The Right Stuff is mentioned among the great films of the 1980s. It chronicles both the truth and fiction in the American dream during an intriguing era. Some of the best moments involve the success of the Soviet space program, which drives politicians crazy and inspires the U.S. program. Without the threat of a “red moon”, the expensive push to reach new milestones would have happened a lot more slowly. By the final Apollo mission in December 1972, the public had lost interest in space flight. More than four decades later, we’ve never come close to matching that push to explore the stars. Regardless of the real reasons for the Mercury program, it spawned a grand era of discovery. Will we see another in this century? Anything is possible, but the widespread nationalism behind this program is unlikely to prosper again. We’ve all seen too much, and the daily problems here on Earth make this greater challenge seem far away indeed.

14 comments:

  1. I agree. This is a sadly forgotten film and it's one that people should talk about more.

    As it happens, I'm currently reading Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon. The story behind Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo is even stranger than The Right Stuff would have you believe.

    Also, this is the film that, historically accurate or not, made me realize just how bad ass Chuck Yeager really is.

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    1. Steve, I've read Rocket Men and a heck of a lot of other books about the space program. My favorite is A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, but that's a good one too. Yeager is definitely a bad ass.

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  2. I'm old enough that I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. (And yes, I did drink Tang.)

    I liked this film because it showed the massive effort that went into this and that it certainly wasn't an endevor for those looking for an easy path in life.

    And I agree on the humor, too. I believe there's a scene where one of the astronauts literally falls asleep in the capsule before the launch and they can hear him snoring in Mission Control. (I've seen a ton of films on the space program, so I might be mixing this in from another movie.)

    Mars is on something like a 23 year cycle where it goes from being 20 million miles away to 40 million miles away, depending on its orbit and Earth's. 1983 would have been the first time after the Apollo missions where it would have been closest. A long time ago I read a couple of what appeared to be well-researched articles whose premise was that if the space program had continued to receive the investment from the government at the same rate it had in the 1960s then we would have been on Mars in 1983. Obviously, that didn't happen and we've gone through another such cycle in the time since then.

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    1. Chip, you're right that the scene with the astronaut sleeping in the capsule is in this movie. It's Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) in the last Mercury flight.

      I've read a lot of books on the subject, and it's really too bad that the space program changed after Apollo. There were a lot of reasons for this switch. The public lost interest when going to the moon seemed too easy. Nixon didn't believe in the space program. Vietnam was a killer. Plus, there was no big enemy like the Soviet Union. Hopefully things will turn around in my lifetime.

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  3. I love this film. It's a film I grew up watching as a kid and made want to go to outer space. Yet, if that same kid saw Gravity. He'd have nightmares.

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    1. I still need to see Gravity, which is sad because I'm such a space junkie. I didn't see The Right Stuff until about 10 years ago, but it's one of my favorites about the space program. Have you see the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon? I think that does a great job of presenting the time after the events of this movie.

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    2. I love that mini-series. I think it's one of the best stories about the space program. My favorite episode is based on Apollo 12. It's so hilarious.

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    3. That's a great episode, with Dave Foley hitting just the right notes as Al Bean. My favorite is "Spider" with the engineers trying to develop the LEM. It hits all the right notes for me.

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  4. Interesting read Dan. I think relating the film to the American Dream myth brings a new dimension to it that perhaps I haven't appreciated. The film didn't really strike a chord with me when I first saw it and consequently I haven't returned to it. It does feel like a forgotten classic - a film widely regarded and applauded by film writers and historians but not talked about in popular mainstream conversations about classics of the era. Maybe it is the fact it was made in the 1980s which is so easily discarded in serious cinema conversation as Hollywood's decade of excess, action heroes, bad comedies and sequels. It appears, quite clearly, that the decade produced some great films.

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    1. Dan, I do think the '80s release played a role in The Right Stuff not being as recognized. Also, it wasn't a huge financial success despite the critical acclaim and award nominations. Plus, a movie about the space program that crosses three hours without any big stars (at the time) is a tricky sell. I think it takes someone fairly interested in space to really get drawn into it.

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  5. I love this movie and recommend it to anyone who has missed it. It is my wife's favorite movie and I have to sneak past it if it is on or we will be watching Yeager, Sheppard, Grissom and Glen for three hours. There is a recent Blu Ray release that I have to pick up. Congratulations on your Golden Katz also.

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    1. Thanks Richard! I'm really surprised to win (or even be nominated). The Right Stuff is such a great movie. I know that my dad watched it as a kid (he's an engineer who worked for a little while on the space program), but I didn't really get into it until catching up with it as an adult. I hadn't watched it in a while until this month, and it was even better than I remembered it.

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  6. Wonderful write-up, Dan. This is true masterpiece of film, story, and history. Well done.

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    1. It had been a little while since I'd seen The Right STuff, so it was great to remember just how good it is. Thanks.

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