#556) The Right Stuff (1983)
OR “Mercury in Retrospect”
Directed & Written by Philip Kaufman
Class of 2013
The Plot: “The Right Stuff” tells the true(ish) story of Project Mercury, the first leg of the “space race” in which NASA aimed to have a man orbit the Earth before the Soviet Union could. Among the seven pilots chosen to be the first astronauts are Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), later the first American in space, and John Glenn (Ed Harris), later the first American to orbit the Earth. The trials and tribulations of all seven men (Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Lance Henriksen, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank) are highlighted and counterpointed by Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), the test pilot who broke the sound barrier but is overlooked for the mission. While the film explores the amazing feat of becoming an astronaut, it also questions if the men picked for the job really had…the right stuff.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “an epic right out of the Golden Age of Hollywood”, praising Kaufman’s equal parts ambitious and subversive screenplay, its “[r]emarkable aerial sequences”, and “spot-on editing”.
But Does It Really?: I found “The Right Stuff” more akin to an efficient machine than a great movie: it’s well-made and gets the job done, but ultimately I have no personal or emotional attachment to it. The film is an impressive undertaking (and the effects hold up remarkably well), but its status as an important movie has waned a bit over the years. Still, any movie that can keep the momentum going for three hours in this day and age is worth a watch, and “The Right Stuff” earns a spot in the “minor classic” column of NFR films.
Everybody Gets One: “Right Stuff” is your one NFR entry for many of the cast, including Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed, Kathy Baker, and William Russ. And thanks to archival footage, this is also the only NFR appearance for Bill Dana as José Jiménez.
Wow, That’s Dated: Synthesizers in the score. I know they’re being used here as symbolism for our entry into a more technological age, but it’s always the synthesizers that give it away.
Title Track: Like “It” 56 years earlier, “The Right Stuff” is that je ne sais quoi needed to become an astronaut; heroism, bravery, machismo, cunning, uniqueness, nerve, talent, etc. This may also be the most prestigious movie with the word “stuff” in the title.
Seriously, Oscars?: A critical hit but a box office miss, “Right Stuff” entered the 1984 Oscars with 8 nominations, including Best Picture. The big winner that night was “Terms of Endearment”, but “Right Stuff” took home four trophies: Editing, Score, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing.
- While on assignment with Rolling Stone to cover the Apollo 17 mission, Tom Wolfe became fascinated with NASA and astronauts, inspiring him to write about the Mercury program and why any of these men would take so dangerous a job. “The Right Stuff” was a success, and the film rights were snatched up almost immediately. William Goldman was originally hired to write the script, but his draft was rejected by Philip Kaufman because it eliminated Chuck Yeager entirely and had a more patriotic tone than what Kaufman wanted to convey. When Tom Wolfe declined to adapt his own material, Kaufman wrote the script himself.
- Who ISN’T in this movie? Quick shout-outs to supporting actors Royal Dano (aka Robot Lincoln) as a minister, and Actors Studio legend Kim Stanley (in her final film role) as real-life aviatrix Pancho Barnes. And be on the lookout for the real Chuck Yeager as the bartender at Pancho’s (he was also the film’s technical consultant).
- Like her work in “Hoosiers“, Barbara Hershey doesn’t have a lot of screentime. Unlike her work in “Hoosiers”, however, Hershey gets to play a much more interesting, dimensional character.
- Bill Conti’s score is what I would call “iconic-ish”. If you asked me to hum the theme to “The Right Stuff”, I couldn’t do it; but if you hummed it, I could guess where it’s from.
- This movie is everything “Top Gun” thought it was but definitely wasn’t.
- I was not expecting this movie’s comic relief to come from the duo of Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum as the NASA recruiters. Bonus points to Shearer for being the only person in this movie to actually say “the right stuff”.
- For those of you keeping track: Ed Harris is playing John Glenn, Scott Glenn is Alan Shepard, and Sam Shepard is Chuck Yeager. All we need is Ed Harris drinking a Jägermeister and the circle would be complete.
- The actors playing the astronauts’ wives are all great actors making the most of their limited screentime. Special shoutout to Mary Jo Deschanel as Annie Glenn. Deschanel is married to this film’s cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and is the mother of Emily and Zooey.
- I will say for a three-hour movie, “Right Stuff” doesn’t feel bloated. There could have been a little trimming towards the end, but ultimately I felt the movie took the appropriate amount of time telling its story and giving its characters the space they needed, pun not intended.
- It took 106 minutes, but we finally got “The Shot”: the seven suited-up Mercury astronauts walking down a hallway towards the camera in slow-motion. Now you know where it comes from.
- I appreciate that this movie treats each of its characters as real people, not lionized historical figures. No one blurts out historical facts about themselves, just a bunch of ordinary people doing something extraordinary.
- The effects throughout this movie are amazing and hold up almost 40 years later (I spotted only a few instances of bluescreen matte lining). After John Glenn’s orbit scenes I was ready to give the Oscar to this team. Oddly enough, there were not enough eligible films in 1983 to justify a Special Effects category, but a special award was given instead to “Return of the Jedi”. Seriously, Oscars?
- As far as historical accuracy, “The Right Stuff” is mostly correct. Many of the events happened, though some details are fudged for dramatic weight. The most controversial departure comes from Gus Grissom and whether or not he prematurely detonated his capsule’s hatch upon splashdown. The film’s ambiguous stance was ill-received at the time, as it had already been determined the detonation was a mechanical error, not human error.
- This is all well and good, but where are the “Hidden Figures” ladies during all of this?
- “The Right Stuff” did not recoup at the box office, and was partially responsible for The Ladd Company’s closure. Despite public criticism from Tom Wolfe and the Mercury Seven astronauts (Wally Schirra called it “Animal House in Space”), the film was well-received by critics; both Siskel and Ebert named it the best movie of 1983.
- Ron Howard has stated that “The Right Stuff” was the movie that made him believe that he could make “Apollo 13”. A spiritual sequel of sorts, “Apollo 13” also stars Ed Harris, this time playing NASA flight director Gene Kranz.
- “The Right Stuff” was adapted into a TV miniseries in 2020, because if there was any complaint about this movie, it’s that it wasn’t long enough.
- The main cultural takeaways from “The Right Stuff” are its title and the aforementioned walking shot, which everyone has spoofed to death. I suspect that the film’s decline in cultural relevancy has more to do with our overall decline of interest in our national space program.