For the inaugural review for this month’s Genre Grandeur – Space, here’s a review of one of my favorite movies about space, The Right Stuff (1983), by Niall.
Niall is a staple when it comes to Genre Grandeur and he never disappoints with his reviews. Check out his site, if you don’t already, he’s got some great stuff on it.
If you want to participate in this month’s Genre Grandeur, it’s not too late. All you have to do is send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the review of your favorite movie that fits somehow into the genre of Space.
Let’s hear Niall’s thoughts on The Right Stuff (1983)
Last year astronaut Chris Hadfield captured the world’s attention and became a You Tube sensation when he sang David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” from the International Space Station. It was one of several moments, including sending text messages from outer space, tweeting in Irish from outer space, and sending video messages to the world from outer space, that all of a sudden made the idea of space travel cool again. It had been years since people were genuinely excited about rockets and capsules and splashdowns. After all, we’ve been up there for decades: this past July marked the 45th anniversary of the Moon Landing (done in a craft, remember, that had less technology in it than an iPhone.). Satellite launches and supply trips to the Space Station are routine. So it’s perhaps difficult to think there was a time when the Space Programme consisted of little more than putting a human on top of a giant roman candle and hoping for the best.
Considering it’s a film about space, Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff spends most of its three-hour running time on Earth. It’s ninety minutes into the movie before anyone actually goes up into the atmosphere, and then it’s only for the briefest of moments before Alan Shepard splashes down in the ocean, having just become the first American in space. Or the first American human at any rate: a chimpanzee and cosmonaut Yuri Gagurin get there first.
The film is a long, slow-paced but quite riveting docudrama about the early years of Space Race. You may know the names of the first three Americans in space: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn. But who can now recall the other four who made up the Mercury 7, the original Chosen Few who had the Right Stuff, that odd combination of bravery, machismo, arrogance, and recklessness which made test pilots different from everyone else? And yet at the time, they were lauded by the Press and lavished with more attention, gifts and girls than any one person deserves, especially as they were hailed as conquering heroes before any of them had even put on a spacesuit. For the record, they were Gord Cooper, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, and Deke Slayton.
There was an eighth pilot, Chuck Yeager, who was not part of the programme (he was never considered because he had not attended college), but who everyone agreed probably had more of the Right Stuff than any of the others. A fearless ace, he broke the Sound Barrier and several other speed and altitude records, but once Outer Space became the new frontier, people lost interest in his achievements and he quickly became a dinosaur. Not that he seemed to care; because astronauts had hardly any control over their craft, he regarded them as little more than ‘spam in a can’.
The film deals with Yeager’s fate very cleverly; an early scene shows him on horseback in the desert against a setting sun, a classic western hero, a cowboy. The dawn of the Space Age marked the moment when little boys stopped wanting to be cowboys and started wanting to be spacemen, and so Yeager is left behind. While the rest of the world stares at the heavens, he remains a cowboy, sipping whisky in a dusty saloon, and it’s his cowboy recklessness that pushes him to ‘chase the demon in the sky’ one more time, even though few care about how high you can fly a jet any more.
The astronauts are all aces, to be sure, but they are not all the same. Shepard is a racist smartarse. Grissom and Cooper are cocky, womanising hotshots. Glenn is a straight-arrow, a priggish blue-eyed golden boy, Captain America, and initially disliked by the others. The astronauts find common ground, however, against the rocket scientists when they discover they won’t be actually flying the capsule and there is to be no window.
And then there are the wives, all long-suffering, nervous, or weary of their hotshot husbands. Annie Glenn is desperately shy and suffers from a stammer so severe that she cannot bear the idea of talking to the media or meeting Lyndon Johnson. Betty Grissom is jaded and believes the military owes her for all the worry and torment that comes with being a pilot’s wife. When she is denied the chance to meet Jackie Kennedy, she takes it as a personal slight from the Government. Trudy Cooper leaves her husband but comes back to him to put on a front for the Press. Glennis Yeager is perhaps the wisest and fiercest of them all, but that may be simply because, unlike the other women, she knew what she was getting into when she married a pilot.
The film has a wonderful period look by production designer Geoffrey Kirkland and gorgeous cinematography by Caleb Deschanel. Authentic newsreel footage is blended nicely into the film, and although it is set in the fifties and early sixties, the newsmen look and act as if they were in a 1930s screwball comedy (I think that after Watergate it became impossible for movie characters to corral a herd of reporters with an ‘okay, boys, one at a time’). As well as directing, Kaufman wrote the very detailed and very funny screenplay (from the marvellous book by Tom Wolfe).
The Right Stuff is a reminder that once upon a time Hollywood made serious films for grown-ups, and I think it’s one of the best films of the 1980s (a decade that had very few decent films, and interestingly, and probably because the present was so awful, many of the memorable movies were either set in the past, like The Right Stuff, Matewan, Diner, The Natural, and Eight Men Out, or in the future, like Blade Runner.) I can’t imagine what The Right Stuff would be like if it was made today; it certainly would be a lot shorter and cut to move a lot faster, and it probably would sacrifice a lot of detail and character development in order to move the plot along.
The brilliant ensemble cast includes Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Kathy Baker, Pamela Reed, Veronica Cartwright, Barbara Hershey, Mary Jo Deschanel, Donald Moffat, Kim Stanley, Lance Henriksen, John P. Ryan, and as a wonderfully comic duo of astronaut recruiters, Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer.
Thanks again to Niall for this great review!