Tuesday, March 17, 2015

SW Watches: The Right Stuff (1983)

I was lucky to be born into an era when the job everyone aspired to was "astronaut".  As you got older, if you were me, you realized you were going to be too tall, wear too many glasses, be just amazingly awful at pre-Calc, and maybe develop a crippling fear of heights.  I was just never going to be astronaut material.



But, yeah, like a lot of people my age and older, I was pretty space-crazy growing up.  We were living on the edge of the world of Buck Rogers and Star Trek.  And, to be a part of that seemed like being a part of the future more than anything you could do (we can quiz Matt A. on the veracity of this childhood fantasy later, but it seemed right at the time).

On my 6th birthday, the Space Shuttle Colombia took off from Kennedy (STS-1). I was well aware it was a coincidence, but it still felt like a pretty good birthday present.  Watching it with the fam is still one of those indelible childhood memories.




Two years later, the Philip Kaufman directed movie The Right Stuff (1983) was released to theaters.  Based on a Thomas Wolfe novel, it's certainly not a movie aimed at kids, but The Admiral was also not one to let the two little miscreants he'd sired run around ignorant of one of the greatest periods (if not THE greatest period) of technical achievement in human history.  Nor would he let it pass that we would not know of the flawed, insanely brave men who sat atop those rockets and came back safely.  Let alone, we might not know the name of Chuck Yeager.

I remember seeing many movies in the theater from my childhood, and certainly the memory of seeing The Right Stuff is still vivid.  While the movie was not the sort of thing I was running around play-acting afterward, I knew I'd seen something quite different and kind of astonishing.

In the years that have passed, I have no idea how many times I'd seen it, but I caught it again while Jamie and I were dating, and I remember really realizing for the first time how damn good the movie really is.  I'm always shocked not just by the mixed reactions you can get at the mention of the film, but that it's not mentioned in the same breath with other films that routinely make great movie lists.


If you are ever expecting an impartial discussion of a movie from me, (a) we need to have a long talk about how this works at The Signal Watch, and (b) when it comes to this movie, my friend, expect no even-handed, fair-minded chit-chat of the merits and issues of Kaufman's opus.  I am totally in.

Director Philip Kaufman set out to do more than just lens what was on the page of the novel he was adapting, nor a straightforward historical recreation with name actors (Ron Howard, I'm looking at you).  He wanted to set the scene in myth and as a legend of 20th Century America.  After all, we all already knew the story - the Mercury 7 went up and came down and then John Glenn went for a few full orbits of our globe, and we could say "we" circled the planet.  Kaufman understood this was a story everyone already knew, and so he needed something more, and so he built a world of portents and metaphor around concrete occurrences from our own near-history.

The movie is huge, and romantic and inspiring, even as it understands it's players as human.  Each pilot and astronaut brings something different to why they're there, and the wives each deal with the near certainty of death differently - and all of them deal with the fame that came with the space race in varying ways.  While the pilots and astronauts go up, the women who love them stand by and wait to see if they'll be the next widow, each flight taking its toll.  Something each astronaut, soldier, police officer or emergency responder's spouse and family know in any era

Upon the release of the movie, Sam Shepard and Barbara Hershey - as Chuck and Glennis Yeager - reignited the legend of Chuck Yeager for a generation of us who saw a new kind of cool in everything about them.  For you kids who don't know Chuck Yeager (and, if the grad students who work for me are any indication, they aren't teaching you kids anything useful in school, so you probably don't know Yeager) - he's the first person to break the sound barrier and one of the greatest fighter and test pilots to grace this planet or any other.

The Yeager scenes are not the ones about fame or the wave of history carrying the players along - it's working-class American heroism in the hell ditch of Edwards on the edge of the frontier that now goes up and faster instead of westward.  Both treacherous paths into the unknown.

Since we're talking about an actual movie here, I'd point out that Chuck Yeager actually shows up in the movie, something I'd never noticed before, offering Harry Shearer a drink.  Amazing what you notice on BluRay.

The pilots hang out at a bar outside of Edwards Air Force Base owned by a "Pancho" Barnes, and absolutely real-life character who once broke Amelia Earhart's speed record and who was in flying circuses and whatnot in an era when that was a thing.

With the breaking of the sound barrier, played here as chasing a demon that takes pilots out of the sky who push the envelope too far, we see the first men who volunteered to ride out on the edge and the raw courage at work that would be required of the Mercury 7.  The movie plays fast and loose with facts to tell it's story, another bit of American folklore, the cowboy leaving the horse to move on to the next adventure (and pulling off that first X-1 test on the first try out).  Still, it's hard to beat the use of visuals that extend the metaphors, creating the otherwordly dimension on the test pilot breaking into unknown and perilous territory.

The cast is incredible, and a who's who of actors who would go on to do great stuff.

Of course Ed Harris plays the super-square John Glenn (and Zooey Deschanel's mother plays Mrs. Annie Glenn).   But here's a cast list copied from IMDB.


Sam Shepard...
Scott Glenn...
Ed Harris...
Dennis Quaid...
Fred Ward...
Barbara Hershey...
Kim Stanley...
Veronica Cartwright...
Pamela Reed...
Scott Paulin...
Charles Frank...
Lance Henriksen...
Donald Moffat...
Levon Helm...
Jack Ridley / Narrator
Mary Jo Deschanel...


That's right - Leslie Knope's mom is the wife of Gordon Cooper, Trudy Cooper.  Bishop is Wally Shirra!  Fred Ward?  GUS GRISSOM.  And for you rock nerds, we've got Levon Helm.

The space race is rightfully painted as maybe the only friendly aspect of the Cold War, but no less a race than claiming allied countries and building ICBMs.  Sure, we were worried about the Russians shooting lasers at us from space platforms, but in the meantime it was a mad dash to see who would have the better engineers and who, by months, weeks or days, would put the first monkeys, dogs and - finally - people, into space.*

The evolution of the astronauts from good soldiers and flyboys who realize the import of their mission, even as the world bestows them with gifts and fame, leads to a banding together of a unique seven individuals who are the only ones they will meet who can know what they are experiencing.   While the achievement of a capsule in space is nothing small, the extraordinary person who will sit atop a rocket and break free of Earth and do the previously unimaginable - at tremendous risk to their own lives - is made plain, including in a terrific scene where Yeager defends the astronauts when its suggested they're doing the work of chimps.

As much as I believe in the Star Trek future, I also know it will get there not just by those of us who are face down in computers day in and say out.  I'm beyond able to talk about The Right Stuff critically or objectively, because I think it's been hard-coded into my DNA since that first viewing - that this is what we do to move forward.  We take risks, and we do things just to get them done.  And not everyone will be willing to be the person willing to sit astride a rocket set to break free from Earth's gravity, and all the danger that suggests.

Were the movie a straightforward retelling, it would be fascinating, powerful stuff.  But by taking on the form of myth, the story resonates at its core and becomes something larger not just about a specific incident in history, but about what it means to take up the challenge - and even what it looks like when it's you, yourself, who have to meet the challenge without the might of a Nation behind you, alone and unnoticed out in the dessert.  Maybe that means more.

As a final note - Jamie noticed that Soderbergh borrowed his ending of Ocean's Eleven from the great recognition scene from The Right Stuff, both using, I believe, Debussy's "Claire de Lune".

The Right Stuff example
Ocean's Eleven example

I'm not saying she's right, except that she is, so maybe the greatest swindle of all may have been Soderbergh stealing this scene (and I'm more than okay with that).


*Russia would kick our ass by two full decades by putting a female cosmonaut in space in 1963.  I love Sally Ride, too, but, yeah, we were late to the game on this one.




2 comments:

Anonymous said...


Super review. How about a follow on review of Apollo 13?

Ryan Steans said...

You know, I'll save the why's and wherefore's for an actual review, but because I knew the rough outline of "Apollo 13"'s events, I was a little unfazed by the movie. Howard can tell a good, straightforward story, but it wasn't really my cup of tea and I only ever saw it the one time in the theater. It's probably time to give it another chance.