The Ladd Company/Warner Bros.
Directed by and Screenplay by Philip Kaufman
Produced by Irwin Winkler/Robert Chartoff\
Based on “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe
Music by Bill Conti
Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel
One of the reasons why THE RIGHT STUFF stands out in my memory is because I saw it during its original theatrical run in the theater. And when the end credits played, a good 75% of the sold out audience I saw it with gave it a standing ovation. And I was right with them. I’ve heard felgercarb from modern day “movie fans” who are so very worldly and sophisticated and think it’s oh so very silly to applaud a movie. What’s the point? they say. The filmmakers can’t hear your applause. But in the case of THE RIGHT STUFF that isn’t the point. That audience and I stood and applauded because we’d just seen a three-hour epic about heroism done with style, respect, humor and grandeur. And we had to show our appreciation for how the movie made us felt. And the bottom line is that it made us all feel damn good. Was a lot of the movie made up? Sure it was. THE RIGHT STUFF is a great example of that magnificent line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
I say that to let you know right up front that there’s a lot of legend in THE RIGHT STUFF. Yes, it’s based on historical events involving real people but the filmmakers didn’t let them get in the way of telling a good story. Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) didn’t fly the X-1 on a whim as the movie would lead you to to believe but damn if it doesn’t make for a great scene. Especially when he breaks a couple of ribs chasing his wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey) on horseback in the desert surrounding the future Edwards Air Force Base and falls off his horse and still gets in the X-1 the next day to break the sound barrier.
And it’s fun to see the friendly rivalry between Yeager and Scott Crossfield as they break each others speed records repeatedly. This is while hungry young pilots such as Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Dennis Quaid) Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward) and Donald “Deke” Slayton (Scott Paulin) are pouring into the base, looking to make their mark and prove they have “The Right Stuff.” Okay, maybe some of this is made up but if you want the facts, go look them up for yourself. We got these things called libraries. You might have heard of them. Make use of them.
But exactly what IS “The Right Stuff”? nobody ever says. It’s one of those grand and glorious Man Things That Cannot Be Given A Name. Chuck Yeager doubtless has it. In fact, he may have it more than anybody else even though he is deemed not worthy to be invited to join the space program. In one of the movie’s best scenes Gus Grissom is being ridiculed by the media and fellow pilots for his insistence that the explosive bolts on the hatch of his capsule exploded on their own during splashdown. The common consensus is that he panicked. But Yeager comes to Grissom’s defense;” 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.” Now, maybe Chuck Yeager said that or maybe he didn’t. But it matters in the context of the movie and the story that the movie is telling and that’s enough.
The bulk of the movie is taken up with the 1960s Space Race, accelerated by the Russians launching Sputnik in 1957. NASA is tasked with putting an American in space and that initiates a near hysterical search for astronauts. Ironically, pilots like Yeager are excluded because he doesn’t “fit the profile” but after extraordinary grueling physical and mental tests, The Mercury Seven astronauts are chosen; Cooper, Grissom and Slayton along with John Glenn (Ed Harris) Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) Walter “Wally” Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Charles Frank (Scott Carpenter). But even though they are trained to be pilots, the engineers of the project (and it’s very clear that the majority of these engineers used to work for the Third Reich in WWII) see them as nothing more than passengers. You add to this is extensive publicity machine surrounding these proceedings and you’ve a situation as ripe for comedy as it is for drama.
And one of the thing that takes people by surprise about THE RIGHT STUFF when they see it for the first time is that is a very funny movie. In fact, at times, it almost plays like a comedy, especially where Dennis Quaid is concerned. Those of you who have seen the movie know what I mean. But just about everybody gets their chance to be funny, even when they’re not being funny. If you know what I mean. Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum get a lot of laughs out their bit as a pair of recruiters looking for candidates for the fledgling NASA program. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the cast don’t get their funny moments as well.
This movie may have just have the greatest cast of talent on screen since “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” Here we go: Fred Ward. Dennis Quaid. Scott Glenn. Ed Harris. Sam Shepard. Lance Henriksen. Scott Paulin. Barbara Hershey. Veronica Cartwright. Harry Shearer. Jeff Goldblum. Pamela Reed. Charles Frank. Donald Moffat. Scott Wilson. Kathy Baker. Royal Dano. John P. Ryan. William Russ. John Dehner. And Chuck Yeager himself. He shows up as the bartender at Pancho’s, the joint where all the pilots hang out. It’s an utterly extraordinary cast and what’s even more extraordinary is that the script and the director gives them all a chance to shine without detracting from the overall story the movie is telling.
And the musical score by Bill Conti is absolutely magnificent. It won the Academy Award that year for Best Original Score and rightfully so. A large part of the reason why THE RIGHT STUFF is still so highly regarded is because of that heroically soaring score. The special effects are also worthy of note because they’re practical effects, done with models. I don’t have anything against CGI and fully understand that a lot of my favorite movies of recent years couldn’t be done without them. But practical effects have a weight and realism that can’t be duplicated. When Chuck Yeager is in that X-1 and says that it’s still going up like a bat outta hell, we believe him.
Chances are that most of you reading this have already seen THE RIGHT STUFF and agree with me. But for those you who haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and check it out at your earliest opportunity. THE RIGHT STUFF is one of the finest American movies ever made, period. And it’s a whole lot of fun to watch as well. Enjoy.