Sam Shephard
Scott Glenn
Ed Harris
Dennis Quaid
Fred Ward
Barbara Hershey
Kim Stanley
Veronica Cartwright
Pamela Reed
Jeff Goldblum
Harry Shearer

Philip Kaufman

"Who was the best pilot I ever saw? Well, uh, you're lookin' at 'im."
Time: 193 mins.
Rating: PG
Genre: History/Drama/Action

Won Academy Awards for Best Sound Effects Editing, Film Editing, Original Score and Sound. Nominated for 4 other awards including Best Picture.
I can't say that I'm a big fan of the space exploration drama, though I have found a new respect for astronauts after watching APOLLO 13 and the HBO miniseries FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, which gives an amazingly well-rounded view of the NASA program. Since then I've been interested in seeing THE RIGHT STUFF, mainly because it's one of those classic films I heard such good things about, but was too young to see in the theater. It's length was something of a deterrent, since you need a good chunk of time blocked off. However, I figured with a cast this good, it would be worth the time. It's amazing to me the cockiness and courage these men portrayed as they put they're lives on the line to become the first and best in outer space. I guess their arrogance helps them overcome their fear, because you'd have to be a lunatic to let yourself get strapped into those tin cans they called "space craft." Plus they got paid next to nothing. Talk about cajones. The film makes a point of showing why these men in particular got the job. The "right stuff" is a potent mixture that's hard to pin down, but it's clear when you see it.

The one drawback is the fact that you never really get to know any of the astronauts. There are too many of them for the film makers to give them the depth and individuality that would have really made this a much more powerful film. Though they are each identifiable, you rarely get to see what they're thinking or feeling, what makes them tick. The film spends a great deal of time with Chuck Yeager (Shepard) as he continually attempts to break the sound barrier, which was the initial step needed to begin space exploration. Something I was unaware of. After 45 minutes, all I know is that Yeager is a lunatic obsessed with being number one. He has to be the best, the pilot who's gone the farthest and fastest. We never learn why, which is a little frustrating. The film is certainly more centered on the deeds themselves rather than the men, but once you already know what they did, you want to know more about their reasons. The flight sequences were amazing, putting you right in the cockpit. This film is certainly a precursor to films like TOP GUN, especially since the flights were supposed to have taken place in the 50s in planes more likely to explode than fly straight.

Once Yeager breaks the sound barrier, the race for space is on. Utilizing the best German scientists, we begin our war with the Russians. For that purpose, the government seeks out the best pilots from every branch of the military to offer them the chance to be first in space. Some, like Yeager, decline. Why would you want to be strapped into a module you're not controlling, when you can fly with your own hands on the wheel? Others, like Alan Shepard (Glenn), John Glenn (Harris) and Gordo Cooper (Quaid), see it as the opportunity of a lifetime. The chance to view the Earth from a unique and unbelievable perspective. One most of humanity only sees through pictures. Even though we've seen that view thousands of times, I'm sure it's still the most awe-inspiring site there is. Since no ones ever been in space before, the 8 men selected for the Mercury program, undergo a battery of strange tests you have to see to believe. I don't understand how they even knew what to test for, but apparently they did, since all of the men went into space and came back in one piece. Which is not to say that the program didn't have it's problems and setbacks, but for the most part, once we started launching men into the atmosphere things went fairly smoothly. What happened on Earth was a different situation.

Despite the fact that most of the men would have a chance to orbit the Earth, there was still in-fighting and disappointment when things don't go perfectly. I felt such heartbreak and horror for their wives, who had to face the real possibility that one of their husbands would not be coming home. All of them were simple homemakers thrust into the spotlight of media attention without a care to their feelings about the matter. It can't have been easy plastering a smile on your face for the cameras and the American public when fear is eating you up inside. Though their husbands were making more money, they certainly weren't becoming rich off these experiments. I give much kudos to the wives for putting up with the government lies and media-hounding. While all of these historic flights into space are happening, the film continues to cut back to the California desert and the exploits of Yeager. He would have had quite a different life if he had chosen to become an astronaut, but I think he's glad he stuck to flying. Certainly not a team player, the space program would have killed his pioneering spirit. I'm not sure how his wife, played by Barbara Hershey, could stand by him through all those death-defying flights, but I'm sure it's part of what gave him the courage to push the envelope.

THE RIGHT STUFF is an epic drama that will keep you glued to your seat, mesmerized by the outrageous dangers these regular men took to be first in space. The film's most powerful performance is given by Sam Shephard as Yeager. Even though he has very few lines, his quiet, stoic presence is felt throughout. Harris, Quaid, Glenn and Fred Ward are also entertaining as the hot shot pilots turned astronaut. They each manage to give their characters individuality with very little to go on. The film tries to impress the majesty and industriousness of this endeavor, but it also clearly elaborates the failings and pettiness that took place as well. We didn't really have a great vision of space exploration, we only did it to beat the Russians. If they hadn't been making such strides, I'm sure we probably never would have even thought to go to the moon, at least in the time frame we did. Since we're dealing with history, there's not a whole lot of suspense surrounding some of the events portrayed, however, Kaufman manages to make it interesting anyway. It's clear that this is more an homage to the space program pioneers than a real life account, but the film makers try to keep an even keel, showing events without being overly patriotic. They also insert a number of highly amusing incidents to break up the stress of the missions.

Overall, THE RIGHT STUFF is a movie that deserves all its accolades and still holds up pretty well today thanks to its great cast, moving script and outstanding art direction. Even if you're not that interested in the space program this is a worthwhile film to check out. It showcases a time in America where people were proud of the country and our accomplishments, unlike the bitter cynicism that reigns today. It's an exciting jaunt down memory lane that puts you in touch with what it must have been like to be an matter how hokey or false the front was.