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The Right Stuff

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Right Stuff

Starring: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn
Director: Philip Kaufman
Rated: PG
RunTime: 193 Minutes
Release Date: September 1983
Genres: Action, Drama


*Also starring: Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, Kathy Baker, Pamela Reed, Donald Moffat



Reviewer Roundup
1.  Dragan Antulov review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
2.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review

Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4

People who enjoy science fiction are often faced with unpleasant surprises due to the improper labelling of novels, stories, comic books or movies. Often science fiction aficionados find material, previously labelled as science fiction, to be pure fantasy or supernatural horror, or rather simple techno-thriller. In such cases, mistakes are understandable - genre boundaries are never clearly marked. But, I believe there are really few cases when a movie labelled as science fiction actually happens to be straight historical epic. Such thing occurred in former Yugoslavia some fifteen years ago, when national distributors gave such treatment to THE RIGHT STUFF, 1983 film directed by Philip Kaufman.

The mistake of the distributors could be explained with the fact that the official poster of the film features men in space suits. But THE RIGHT STUFF film isn't even fiction. It was based on the non-fiction book by Tom Wolfe, covering the early years of American space program. The plot of the film begins in 1947 when few people heard of Edwards Air Force Base, major test site for experimental planes. The major aim of test flights is to determine ability of manned aircraft to reach 1 Mach speed and thus break the sound barrier. Many pilots tried to achieve that goal and many paid with their lives for such bravado. But one quiet pilot, Chuck Eager (played by Sam Shaped) succeeds and thus gives example for whole new generation of test pilots, determined to enter history books by breaking new speed records. Ten years later, Soviets have launched "Sputnik" marking the beginning of the Space Age. In order to regain national prestige, US government decides to be the first to send man into space. Best Air Force, Navy and Marine pilots are recruited into program, but not Yeager, because he lacks college education and desired all-American image.

In one of critics' polls THE RIGHT STUFF was named as one among top 10 films made in 1980s. Such high position could be explained with the fact that Kaufman's film looks quite atypical for its time. With more than three hours of length and epic scope it looked more suitable for 1950s and 1960s - age when Hollywood used to make films larger than life. But the real reason lies in the fact that it was made by truly remarkable and talented filmmaker. Philip Kaufman created reputation in 1970s by using all the opportunities of that Golden Age in order to create original, memorable movies. THE RIGHT STUFF was the last of them, swan song of an era when producers allowed directors to spend big bucks on unusual, risk-taking "artsy" projects.

THE RIGHT STUFF is unusual because it lacks many standard elements of Hollywood film. The plot is almost non-existent and not very coherent; the story, featuring many interesting incidents and anecdotes, shifts focus from the old generation of test pilots, embodied in Yeager, to new generation of the astronauts. The film also lacks conventional protagonist - Yeager (who also appears in small cameo) remains the true hero of the film, but equal time and exposure is also given to other astronauts and their wives, making this movie into ensemble piece. That gave opportunity for Kaufman to use multitude of great acting talents, until that specialised only for bit or character roles. Sam Shepard is great as Yeager, war hero whose greatest achievement - breech of the sound barrier - remained obscured in history books, probably due to his own modesty. On the surface, he lacks personality compared with his hyped and more fortunate astronaut colleagues, but Shepard gives texture to this character with subtle gestures and phrases. Shepard's performance is followed with great acting by Ed Harris as clean-cut Marine (and future politician) John Glenn. Young Dennis Quaid is more than fine as arrogant fighter jock Gordo Cooper, and this arrogance is mirrored in his friend and most tragic figure of Virgil Grissom, superbly played by Fred Ward. Always reliable character actor Scott Glenn provides some comic relief as Navy aviator and (arguably) first American man in space Alan Shepard. Kaufman left room for female talents to excel too - Barbara Hershey, Pamela Reed, Veronica Cartwright and Mary Jo Deschanel are great as pilots' wives. Royal Dano is also impressive as menacing figure of Preacher, but the most memorable performances belong to Donald Moffat as Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson and Jane Dornacker as Nurse Murch.

Great acting talent assembled for this film was mirrored with Kaufman's superb direction. Most notable of all is the methods Kaufman uses in order to suggest the passage of time. The beginning of the film shows test pilots living in the middle of desert, as virtual unknowns, far away from strict rules and discipline. Everything seems natural -Yeager can indulge himself in horse riding just few yards away from the fastest and most precious aircraft in the world. In that setting, it's quite normal for important technical problems to be solved with simple chainsaw and for the test pilots not to report their ribs being broken before most important flights. But the times are changing; WW2 alliance with USSR is replaced with Cold War, and "natural" pilots like Yeager must be replaced with more disciplined, conventional pilots. Their entire lives become focus of media frenzy, and their job is subjected to strict rules, meticulous plans and they must fight the bureaucrats, publicity-seeking politicians and uncaring scientists (like former Nazi rocket expert Werner von Braun, played by Scott Beach) only to preserve their most basic human dignity. This contrast is underlined with the beautifully edited sequence - while Yeager conducts his final and most spectacular test flight in absolute obscurity, "Mercury" astronauts receive fame and fortune, although some of them even before going in the space.

Those contrasts and similar effects are achieved with Kaufman's superb use of poetic movie language. Editing is great, and photography by Caleb Deschanel provides many memorable scenes like the funeral in the desert or astronauts in their suits walking in slow motion (the same image would be copied in many latter films). Although Kaufman enjoyed support of NASA and American military, which provided authentic locations and period equipment, he still had to use special effects in order to simulate space flights. Those effects are excellent and they can still fool the audience accustomed to CGI and real footage of Earth from outer space. Another fine contribution of this film is "Oscar"-awarded musical score by Bill Conti; I still tremble from excitement every time I hear it. It is accompanied with the use of Holst and Debussy. Some of the songs used in the background also provide authentic atmosphere of the historical period.

This film is great, and its cult status is well deserved, but there are some minor flaws. Some of the "Mercury" astronauts aren't fleshed out enough (although being played by fine actors, like Lance Henriksen). Film also lacks proper closure. On the other hand, most logical conclusion of the film - landing on the Moon - would require this film to be more than six hours long. Also, some critics were prone to attack this film as too Amerocentric and hard on Russians, who were portrayed as evil monsters, just in line with most virulent Cold War rhetoric of Reagan's America. In some of contemporary interviews, Kaufman defended that approach by claiming that he wanted to make film as authentic as possible, and in order to do that, he portrayed Russians not as they were in real life, but as they were perceived by Americans in early 1960s.

Time has passed; now we don't see astronauts as heroes. In this age of widespread satellite communications and routine space missions, those men and women in space suits are seen as mere maintenance workers. Few young boys want to be astronauts when they grow up. But this film, sentimental reminder of the times "when future began", perhaps could encourage at least some of them to follow "Mercury" astronauts' footsteps seek new frontiers in the sky. And even if they decide to stay on Earth, they could still appreciate THE RIGHT STUFF as an extraordinary piece of cinema.

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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