Thanks to Craig for our new Netflix subscription, Susan and I were able to watch one of my favorite movies of all time, The Right Stuff (1983). I watched this movie repeatedly on cable and VHS as a child and had much of the dialog memorized. The excellent dialog plus the skillful acting and the wonderful blending of special effects with human interest make this movie for me. Plus it’s about astronauts, so it’s got to be wicked cool.
This lengthy film can be broken down into three parts.
The first part shows the harbinger of the Space Age with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaking the sound barrier. This was my favorite part as a kid, mostly because Yeager is such an engaging character. If you read up on what actually happened you’ll learn that like many parts of this movie the facts have been rather loosely dramatized but gets at the gist of things. I’ve always been perturbed by the reporter saying “the Russians are our allies” even though US-Soviet relations had deteriorated quite a bit by 1947. After Yeager’s historic flight, we see another flight where he once again sets the speed record to top a civilian pilot before the 50th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Young cocky pilots descend on Edwards Air Force Base including Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin) while their wives nervously discuss the risky lives of test pilots.
Then Sputnik orbits the Earth. The frenzied Eisenhower administration wonders how the Soviets got ahead of the US and plans on manned missions to space. In one of the funniest sequences in the movie, two government agents played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer show films of potential candidates for the astronaut corps, but when Ike insists on test pilots Goldblum and Shearer are dispatched on a recruting mission. First they go to Edwards where they pick up Cooper, Grissom, and Slayton, to Yeager’s ridicule. Then they watch clean Marine John Glenn (Ed Harris) on a tv game show. Finally they board an aircraft carrier and meet Naval aviator Alan Shepherd (Scott Glenn).
The astronaut candidates go through a series of brutal and often bizarre tests in another of the really funny parts of the film. I especially like the part where Shephard is given a talking to by an Hispanic orderly because of his Jose Jimenez impersonation (all while Shephard has an enema). Once the seven candidates are selected they are introduced to the media with great hype. It takes a while for these seven men to gel as a team, but they come together to defend their positions as pilots of spacecraft as opposed to being “astronaut-occupants” of a capsule. In an interesting sequence the astronauts play the media off the engineers and insist on a redesign of the spacecraft to have a window, a hatch with exploding bolts and manual controls for reentry. While the exploding hatch plays a big part in Grissom’s mission, it is interesting that the filmmakers chose to leave out that the manual controls proved vital for Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) to return safely to the Earth on his mission.
But Carpenter and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen) are only minor characters in this film. The filmmakers also never mention that Slayton was grounded due to a heart condition but became a respected member of NASA as head of astronaut selection. And so the film only dramatizes four of the Mercury missions, which is good in the interests of time and storytelling works pretty well. Each mission has a particular point of tension. The humorous incident of Sheppard needing to urinate is followed by the harrowing case of Grissom needing to swim to safety after the hatch blows accidentally. Glenn’s historic orbital flight is given a long, heroic depiction underscored by concerns about a faulty heat shield. The film ends with the launch of Cooper’s flight. The movie keeps in mind the wives dealing with the stress and the overbearing press corp as well as astronauts on the ground monitoring the missions of their fellow astronauts.
Yeager’s presence is never overlooked in this film and his character acts as kind of Greek chorus to the Mercury program. In the penultimate scene Yeager is shown testing (and crashing) an aerospace trainer aircraft in what proved to be his last mission as a test pilot. These scenes are contrasted with the Mercury 7 astronauts being feted Texas-style at the opening of the new NASA space center in Houston. The Right Stuff asks but never answers, who is the best pilot? The unsung fliers of experimental jets or men who sat atop explosive rockets in front of millions of viewers?