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Review: The Right Stuff (1983)

The Right Stuff (1983)

Directed by: Philip Kaufman

Premise: The story of the astronauts in NASA’s Mercury program, which put the first American in space.

What Works: The Right Stuff is an inspiring story about people working at the peak of their field and pushing the limits of the human experience. The film has a very broad scope, covering the astronauts from their time as test pilots to the various Mercury missions, but it manages to maintain a degree of intimacy with each of the characters. The Right Stuff benefits from some very good performances by its core cast including Ed Harris as John Glenn, Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, and Fred Ward as Gus Grissom. The film balances its time between each man very well and although these men are heroes the film keeps them within the bounds of human dimensions. Each man has his flaws and those flaws lead to some tensions between the astronauts as well as family difficulties. Another element of the character work that The Right Stuff does well is the film’s portrayal of the pilots’ relationships with their families and the way each family coped with the enormous pressures of press and fame. Because the film does not turn a blind eye to these challenges and keeps the astronauts as flawed human characters, the film ultimately makes them more heroic because it maintains the possibility of fear and failure. The Right Stuff also puts the Mercury program in the historical context of the Cold War. This is done especially well as the film makes connections between the success of the pilots and broader cultural consideration and that raises the stakes for the mission. This broad scope and detailed coverage of each pilot result in a film that exceeds three hours in length, but nothing about The Right Stuff feels superfluous or self-indulgent. That is partly due to the excellent writing and editing of the film. The Right Stuff covers a long period of time but director and screenwriter Philip Kaufman shows excellent sense for pacing and selecting what moments to dramatize. Something The Right Stuff does very well is to integrate dramatized scenes with news footage of the historical events so that images that were shot twenty years earlier meld together perfectly with the rest of the film. Of the recreated scenes in space, the special effects of the film hold up very well. In general a lot of the model work from films of the early 1980s such as Blade Runner, Return of the Jedi, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan have held up very well over the years (more so than a lot of the early computer graphics work of the 1990s) and that is true of The Right Stuff as well. The picture is capped by an excellent score by composter Bill Conti that is a heroic fanfare for the bravery of the astronauts.

What Doesn’t: If The Right Stuff suffers from anything it is that the film does not have any overarching conflict or goal that extends throughout the film. This is common in films that adapt recent history. When filmmakers dramatize the ancient past there is far more latitude to use artistic invention but when they dramatize subjects in their own lifetime, that license is greatly reduced. The story of The Right Stuff might have benefitted from more conflicted relationships between the astronauts, since it does get a little flat and repetitious once the astronauts begin making their trips to space. On the other hand, it is very admirable that the film finds the drama in the stress and danger of space exploration and test piloting without resorting to dramatic inventions that could make the story clunky.

DVD extras: The two disc edition includes cast and crew information, commentaries, documentaries, featurettes, and deleted scenes.

Bottom Line: The Right Stuff assembles a lot of characters and some very complicated history into a coherent feature film. The Right Stuff will appeal to fans of Apollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon but its appeal will be broader than just those interested in aviation and space exploration. This is an inspiring film about heroism and the value of risk taking.

Episode: #377 (February 26, 2012)