Test pilots were the fastest men alive,
And Chuck Yeager was famous as the best.
But soon man found a new frontier—to strive
Toward space, and certain valiant men impressed.
Shepard, Grissom, Slayton, Cooper, Glenn,
Carpenter, Schirra—these were their names.
America was smitten with these men,
Who dared for fame which could well end in flames.
When countless tests had readied them for flight,
They blasted skyward. Shepard was the first;
The next was Grissom and his slip and slight;
And then Glenn and the orbits he traversed.
These seven proved ideas are not enough;
Achieving dreams requires the right stuff.

I believe The Right Stuff should have won Best Picture for 1983 (over Terms of Endearment, a VC favorite). No other film that year and few films since have provided such a sweeping, mostly accurate, and entertaining view of turning points in history. It also boasts an ensemble of ‘80s heavyweights, including Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, and Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, plus smaller roles for Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Shearer, and Jeff Goldblum (who also appeared in The Big Chill that year).

As I stated in my Apollo 13 review, my grandfather was directly involved with the space program and was present for many of the sometimes humorously unsuccessful rocket tests shown in a montage halfway through. Though the film doesn’t celebrate the men behind the scenes, as Apollo 13 did, it pays homage not only to the seven initial astronauts who braved the unknowns of the Mercury program but also the test pilots who paved the way by risking their lives to break down barriers, as Yeager did on October 14, 1947, when he hit Mach 1.

Yet The Right Stuff isn’t just an affectionate tribute to the early space program. It also testifies to the fortitude of pilots’ long-suffering wives; to the camaraderie of men daring to face a challenge together; to the ridiculous chutzpah of the media and how they whitewashed anything unsavory or unfavorable; to the wonders and thrills that drive men to risk life and limb, push envelopes, and go where no one has gone before (yes, I like Star Trek).

Beyond that, it’s also great fun to watch, particularly the rigorous testing the would-be astronauts endured. The beginning with Yeager is a tad slow and Levon Helm’s drawling narration a bit discordant, but once Shearer and Goldblum’s bumbling recruiters step in, the over-three-hour film passes quickly. A few scenes were unnecessary, such as the fan dance toward the end, and an unscientific and rather silly “explanation” for the fireflies John Glenn witnessed, but overall the film rarely misses a beat. Each game-changing event is given ample attention, with both humor and grief involved, such that one feels uniquely educated by the film’s end. The Oscar-winning score by Rocky’s Bill Conti matches the subject matter beautifully, aided by Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” and Holst’s The Planets. Though lesser-known players, such as Lance Henriksen’s Wally Schirra, are not given much screen time, The Right Stuff recreates the original real-life “star voyagers” who captured America’s collective imagination and prepared the way for future leaps for mankind.

Best line: (Jack Ridley, after Gus Grissom’s perceived fault with the second Mercury splashdown) “Nothing these guys do is gonna be called a failure… But you’d think the public’d know that they’re just doing what monkeys have done….”   (Yeager) “Monkeys? 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.”

Artistry: 9
Characters/Actors: 9
Entertainment: 9
Visual Effects: 7
Originality: 9
Watchability: 8
Other (language): -1
TOTAL: 50 out of 60

Next: #113 – The Untouchables

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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