The Right Stuff (1983)

Philip Kaufman directs Ed Harris, Sam Shepard and Dennis Quaid in this epic drama following the test pilots and US Marines who broke the sound barrier and became the first astronauts for NASA.

Allegedly the astronauts didn’t like this representation of them. Mercury Seven original Wally Schirra said: “It was the best book on space, but the movie was distorted and warped… All the astronauts hated it. We called it Animal House in Space.” You can see why the flyboys who conquered the stratosphere didn’t gel with this representation of themselves. They’re cocky, laddish, constantly flirting with death wishes. Cowboys who could be replaced by chimps. Pioneers along for a ride they have little control over. Only really Harris’ John Glenn shows an external humanity, emotional maturity. He treats his wife with a gentle adoration while the others hound dog and drag their ‘First Ladies Of Space’ about like required ornaments. Kaufman ain’t interested in myth, he’s interested in myth making. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at MACH 3. He knows it takes a special kind of macho jock to achieve the unachievable. He makes no bones in presenting these men as fallible, flawed and competitive. Because he has no need to turn these men into heroes. They already are, he’s trying to reset them back to being men. Rewind all the hype and propaganda, the Presidential phone calls and ticker tape parades. He explores some icons like Chuck Yeager (Shepard making a genuine, almost supernatural, impact as the man who should have been king of space) with an affectionate focus, others with a cursory shorthand. The movie lacks narrative form, drifting from one character or location to the next with little finesse. It isn’t interested in a trad three act structure. It is a freewheelin’ procedural of a unique, never repeated adventure. Yet it never feels baggy at three plus hours. The Right Stuff feels like a feast. The filmmakers eschewed the use of visual effects done in the lab. It makes you feel like you are right there. Did Tony Scott and Joseph Kosinski use this as a starting point for their Top Gun movies? Fleshing out all the reality but retaining the need speed, the desire to put an audience in the cockpit as the impossible is tamed? Bill Conti’s score adds to the aura that we are on the precipice of a new age of man. It absorbs Holst’s The Planets and Native American chant recycled from a previous Kaufman flick. Synthesiser heaven. John Barry was originally asked to compose the score but didn’t like Kaufman’s brief for how he wanted his movie to feel. “Sounding like you’re walking in the desert and you see a cactus, and you put your foot on it, but it just starts growing up through your foot.” In its finest scenes, and this evening devourer is full of them, The Right Stuff makes you feel like you are witnessing the points in the 20th Century where humanity is being redefined and America lives up to it grand potential. A once in a lifetime cinematic experience.


Perfect Double Bill: Apollo 11 (2019)

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here


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