Title: The Right Stuff
Language: English, Russian
Genre: History, Adventure, Drama
Director/Writer: Philip Kaufman
based on the book of Tom Wolfe
Music: Bill Conti
Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel
Mary Jo Deschanel
John P. Ryan
Eclectic American filmmaker Phillip Kaufman’s seventh feature, indisputably his most prominent and competent work, a staggering epic depicts the real-life astronauts who are selected for Project Mercury, aka. Mercury 7, in the early 60s, at the heat of space competition paranoia between USA and USSR, based on the titular popular novel of Tom Wolfe.
Clocking around 192-minute, the film sets its point of departure in 1947, where the war hero and legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager (Shepard) successfully breaks the sound barrier, which stimulates more pushing-the-envelope competitions and attracts newbie pilots to the hallowed land, Edwards Air Force Base, among them are Gordo Cooper (Quaid), Gus Grissom (Ward) and Deke Slayton (Paulin), who in due time will be recruited as the members of the Mercury 7 in the wake of the launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite in 1957. The other four fellow pilots are John Glenn (Harris) from US Marine Corps, Alan Shepard (Glenn), Walter Schirra (Henriksen) and Scott Carpenter (Frank) from US Navy. The 7 chosen ones have to undergo a series of backbreaking training for their unprecedented expedition, instant fame and media attention duly ensue to the point of pestering, also, a more existential question subsequently emerges, in the eyes of the military top-dogs, are they merely some guinea pigs cherry-picked to a historic but also high risky mission as a passive passenger inside a capsule or as a consummate pilot who is sitting in the driving seat? Can their utility be demeaningly filled in by an unenlightened chimp sitting on the same seat? The answer will be pinpointed by Yeager in his offhand remark and their upcoming conduct during their space voyages.
Kaufman’s chronological account of this masculine vocation where egoism, sensational nationalism and military snobbery blend intelligently with peer pressure and fraternity among the seven astronauts, traverses through a vast scope of characters and factual events, emphasizes on three space-launches of Shepard, Grissom and Glenn, and their respective aftermath, does not mince word in military’s victor/loser dichotomous attitudes (which is an abiding trait in the mindset of USA), in Grissom’s case, the payoff is unsatisfactory, but at least he is alive and kicking after his trails and tribulations, and in Glenn’s case, a brilliant grandeur of aboriginal occultism well countervails the overarching scientific materiality.
In a paralleled subplot, Chuck Yeager, who is deemed as a maverick by the NASA recruiter, continues his dare-devil, limit-pushing enterprise which denotes another maniac obsession of human race – speed. Kaufman’s script varnishes him with a more tacit, thousand-yard stare sophistication, to underpins his unsung hero station and to coyly suggest that even earthbound, there are also worthier heroes walking among us because of their significant contributions to the fatherland.
A sidebar account of the ostensibly supportive astronaut wives’ reserves and gripes towards the perilous nature of their hubbies’ occupation and the injustice within the bureaucracy introduces a telling dissonance from the other sex, where Venorica Cartwright’s Betty Grissom fulminates against the USA military for their backtracking and Mary Jo Deschanel’s Annie Glenn, under her husband’s undivided support, her stutter inadvertently leaves Lyndon Johnson (Moffat) look like a fuming knucklehead. However, a more pertinent story of the pioneer female aviator Pancho Barnes, played by Kim Stanley in her silver-screen final appearance, which has never gotten a proper platform to be even marginally tapped into.
Sam Shepard receives a token Oscar nomination for the large ensemble, he is the ideal embodiment of a fearless pathfinder, reticent, inaccessible, mythic, only enriched with his ritualistic solicit of a gum before each death-defying stunt. To namecheck other strong performances from the cast, Scott Glenn and Ed Harris both raise above the average bar with their respectively hot-headed and level-headed temperament; Fred Ward is less outstanding, but his heartfelt disheartenment actually well connects with the viewers, to show the downside of their valorous undertaking; whereas a perpetually smirky Dennis Quaid over-abuses his self-congratulating impertinence, which becomes a thorn in the audience’s side.
A big thumb-up to the film’s Special Effect team, whose work has still remained resonant and awe-inspiring to watch 33 years later at a time where Digital VFX is jadedly awash. Undeniably, THE RIGHT STUFF is that kind of film requires immense teamwork and coordination to pull it through its lengthy production spell, it is a high watermark for Hollywood industry, as a doe-eyed audience who is not entire familiar with USA’s history, the end result is both inspiring and coruscating, in other words, it is a rational ensemble piece with astonishingly constructed settings to imitate the authentic facts, and most importantly, it dares to inspect the patriotic sentiment with a discerning eye.