Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Right Stuff

(A version of this post first appeared on the Bryn Mawr Film Institute Blog)

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

No, this is not a story about conservatives. There were many memorable films in 1983, including The Big Chill and Terms of Endearment, the eventual Oscar winner despite its meandering plot and drawn out melodramatic death of Debra Winger's character. For my money, The Right Stuff, directed by Philip Kaufman, based on the book by Tom Wolfe, was the best movie that year. One thing this film, about the Mercury astronauts, is so successful at doing is showing heroes as real people with definable character traits. It accomplishes this feat without diminishing what these men achieved, or undermining the courage needed to face the unknown obstacles confronting them. The opening tone is set by the voiceover describing test pilots in epic hero terms as they chase the "demon" out there in the sky. The quest to break the sound barrier emphasizes the theme that people must break through the boundaries that try to contain them. That is why the pilots are urged to "punch a hole in the sky."

John Glenn comes off like a squeaky clean Marine. Ed Harris even looks like Mr. Clean from the TV commercials. He can't curse when he is angry, and leaves it to the other pilots to fill in the profanities when he speaks. He is admirable as he backs up his wife, who has a speech impediment, so that she doesn't have to let in the press and the grandstanding Lyndon Johnson camping out on her front lawn. Alan Shepard, played by Scott Glenn, is a mischievous prankster, who does inappropriate Hispanic impersonations of then comic Bill Dana's politically incorrect persona. Gordon Cooper is a bragging charmer, played by Dennis Quaid, who keeps asking "Who is the best pilot you ever saw? – You're looking at him." He is so cool that he has to be awakened after falling asleep in the space capsule just before his launch. His pal, Fred Ward's Gus Grissom, calls him a "hot dog," and there is a chilling scene as Cooper holds up a burnt-to-a-crisp frankfurter at a barbecue, which strikes his wife as a bad omen.

Grissom is a man of few words, and is stoical most of the time. But he knows how to get the other astronauts to unite and take control of their missions. He shows their superiors that the astronauts run the Mercury program, and they are not just the equivalents of chimpanzees. He makes it clear that they generate the funding when he says "no bucks, no Buck Rogers." There are bad omens relating to his flight, when Cooper drops a miniature souvenir capsule into a glass of water, and tells Gus, make sure you don't "screw the pooch." It is also telling that it is Grissom who insists on explosive safety bolts on the capsule. At the end of his mission, he is shown as claustrophobic, wanting to get out of the capsule after touchdown in the Atlantic Ocean. The bolts explode, water gets in, and the capsule is lost. He says the bolts just blew, despite the scientists saying that couldn't happen. His extreme disappointment at the outcome of his flight is painfully portrayed by Ward, as his character is shunned by the White House.

Sam Shepherd's Chuck Yeager, the test pilot who first broke the sound barrier, and who refused to become an astronaut, is the most iconic character portrayed. After breaking the barrier, he howls at the moon, presaging the time when man would land on earth's satellite. He is the essence of cool, quiet manliness. But, he gets knocked off his horse after hitting a tree branch while galloping after his wife, played by Barbara Hershey.  And, he tells her, "I'm a fearless man, but I'm scared to death of you." One of the last scenes in the film has Yeager ejecting from a doomed test plane. You can't help but be moved when Yeager, his face greasy and looking burned, strides away from the wreckage. One of the rescue soldiers asks, "Is that a man?" Another says, "Yeah, you're damn right it is!" Machismo in the most dignified sense of the term. When the bar where the first test pilots congregated burns down, it symbolizes the passing of an era, as Yeager figuratively passes the baton to the next generation of "star voyagers."

These men are supported by their long suffering wives, who shudder every time the "man in black" appears to give one of them the bad news that one of their pilot husbands crashed. Mrs. Cooper leaves at first but later returns to back up her husband. Mrs. Grissom rails against the military because they owe her for her sacrifices. As one of the wives says, the armed forces spent a lot of money to train their men, but nothing to prepare them to be fearless wives. But, these women obviously were attracted to their husbands. As Mrs. Yeager says she must have been drawn to a man who "pushed the outside of the envelope."

Besides showing the challenges that these men face, the film is notable for its humor.  Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer are very funny as they show films of potential astronauts to the President and his top officials. They say surfers would be good for splashdowns, and car racers even have their own helmets. Eisenhower comes off pretty good as he rejects the outrageous nominees and insists on test pilots, whom his advisers consider to be uncontrollable. Since the Russians are the first to send up an orbiting satellite our technical ability is questioned by these advisers. But they are assured by rocket scientist Werner Van Braun that "our German scientists are better than their German scientists." To the film's detriment, many government officials seem buffoonish, particularly Johnson.

The best comic scenes center on the tests the men must undergo. You have to laugh when Scott Glenn can't remove his arm off of the table when a needle has overstimulated his muscles. The scene where he has a balloon inflated in his rectum and he must run to the bathroom to relieve himself is also hysterical. The men need to provide sperm samples. Quaid's Cooper knows Glenn's Shepard is in the next bathroom stall masturbating because he is humming the Marine Corps theme song. Cooper tries to drown it out with the Air Force counterpart, and the sounds get louder as they race toward their respective climaxes. Of course, the scene that shows Mission Control having no contingency for going to the bathroom in space for the first flight overflows with humor. We roar as Shepard, who had drunk numerous cups of coffee, grimaces and must request permission to relieve his bladder into his spacesuit. 

By the way, the scene in Texas where the men listen to music as the dancer performs, and they look at each other in silence with smiles on their faces as they reflect on their accomplishments, is repeated with the same music at the end of the remake of Oceans 11 in front of the Bellagio's dancing fountains.

This film expertly shows the bravery and failings of these space pioneers, and it, along with Apollo 13, remind us of a "can do" America where "failure is not an option."

Next week’s film is Spartacus.


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