If nothing else, The Right Stuff could go down in history as the movie that could have elected a President. At a time when the Democratic party was looking for a viable candidate to challenge Ronald Reagan in 1984, the image of Ed Harris as John Glenn, the squeaky clean All-American with the can-do attitude filled them with hope that the real former astronaut turned senator could help them re-capture the White House. I think the film may have actually hurt Glenn in the long run. While he was an American hero, a capable senator and probably would have made an able president, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, he’s no Ed Harris, at least not in the charisma department.
Unfortunately, all the focus on political ramifications had nothing to do with the actual film, which seemed to get lost in the shuffle. Too bad, because it’s one of the best films of the 1980s, taking real life personalities and molding them into something like a modern American myth.
In some ways, The Right Stuff is the last great western. Even though set at the dawn of the Space Age, it’s about a collection of highly individualistic Americans determined to push back the boundaries of a frontier or die trying. The connection from cowboy to astronaut is made explicit in the first images of test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), astride a horse riding across the California desert. At the beginning of the movie, Edwards Air Force Base is a small western town, complete with a saloon, the Happy Bottom Riding Club, run by the profane and colorful Pancho Barnes (Kim Stanley, the voice of the adult Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird). The wild west meets the final frontier when the rider and horse encounter the Bell X-1 on its test stand, belching fire like a dragon from its rocket motors.
The first part of the film deals with the effort to break the sound barrier in late 1947. The version shown here is somewhat fictionalized, dare I say mythologized, but a fairly accurate portrayal of just how much guts it took to strap yourself into a potential bomb and try to fly faster than some people believed was possible, especially after you broke your ribs in a horse riding accident the night before.
The film skips ahead to the early 1950s, when Edwards Air Force Base is now Mecca to the American test pilot. If you wanted to be the fastest man alive, there was only one place in the Free World to go. Two new arrivals include hotshot Air Force jet jockeys Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward), who show up expecting people to be dazzled by their very presence, but find themselves at the bottom of a pyramid where you are how fast you fly, and no one is faster than Yeager. Less than enthused about their new surroundings are Trudy Cooper (Pamela Reed) and Betty Grissom (Veronica Cartright), who have dutifully followed their husbands to yet another posting, only to find that simply turning on a faucet is a gamble.
The film abruptly shifts gears, as did the whole country, with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. There is a new directive from Washington: get a man into space before the Soviets. At President Eisenhower‘s insistence, and over the objections of NASA scientists like Wernher von Braun (unnamed but played by Edward Anhalt), it is decided that test pilots will be America’s first astronauts.
Suddenly, the top of the “pyramid” has gotten a lot higher and “pushing the outside of the envelope” has been taken to a whole new level. Almost every top pilot in the Air Force, Navy and Marines is jockeying for a seat. Everyone, that is, except civilian pilots like Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson) and even Chuck Yeager, the greatest of them all, rejected because he doesn’t have a college degree. We get the impression that suits Yeager just fine. He has no interest in being a lab rat, “Spam in a can.”
In addition to Cooper and Grissom, we meet John Glenn (Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Donald “Deke” Slayton (Scott Paulin) who, as we all know now, are the men that even beat all comers to the seven most coveted seats in aerospace. However, they must endure a series of tests that can either be described are bizarre or sadistic, under the watchful eye of Nurse Murch (Jane Dornacker).
Selection and training, however, are almost a cakewalk compared to the demands of being America’s seven greatest heroes. In addition to risking their lives, they are expected to make themselves accessible to media and, above all, behave like pure, lily-white bastions of American virtue. The seven men selected for this job are, however, men, with all the human weakness that come with being miles from home and having access to any woman they could want. Moreover, they are often at the mercy of the glad-handing politicians who control NASA’s funding.
In a lot of ways, the story of The Right Stuff parallels the taming of the west and how rugged individualists like the astronauts were turned into “team players.” This comes by necessity, when the seven astronauts, the best pilots in the United States, realize that in the view of the NASA scientists they were little different than the chimps that were being sent up before them. They band together and, at least partially, seize back control of their destiny and salvage their pride.
The key sequence of the film comes late in the movie and brings it back full circle to Chuck Yeager. The seven Mercury astronauts are begin feted in the Houston Astrodome with a Texas-sized barbecue, while Yeager, back at Edwards and far from the public eye, tries to set another one of the aviation records in which the public has lost interest since the space age began. The vivid contrast between the oversized adulation in Texas with the lonely and near-fatal flight in California sums up the film perfectly and leads to one most brilliant transitions in film, when director Phillip Kaufman dissolves from the tail pipe of Yeager’s F-104 to the tunnel entering the Astrodome.
One figure that appears all through the film is Levon Helm, former member of The Band and the actor who plays Yeager’s right hand man, Jack Ridley, and also delivers the open and closing narration, which establishes the film’s mythological tone.
While The Right Stuff is very much a “guy’s movie,” the key women are not ignored. In addition to Trudy Cooper and Betty Grissom, we get to know Annie Glenn (Mary Jo Deschanel), who is initially isolated from the other Mercury wives because her stutter makes her reluctant to talk, causing her to be perceived as stuck-up. Finally, there is the woman whose name was painted on the side of the Bell X-1, Glennis Yeager (Barbara Hershey), who asks only one thing from her husband: never live in the past.
The film also deals quite poignantly with the reality that all of these women lived with, that there was a better than average chance, especially in the early days, that their men would never come home from work. This specter is personified in the person of the minister (Royal Dano)whose job it is to inform pilots’ wives that they are now widows.
Ultimately, The Right Stuff succeeds best in replacing the marble statues of the public image with the flesh-and-blood men around whom the myths were built, which makes their real-life accomplishments all the more extraordinary.
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.