It’s January, normally a cold and wet time for us in the southland. But not this year. The newest month of 2014 is about to end, too. Therefore, it’s time once more to rejoin the longest running series I’ve ever been involved with. The same one the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I will re-christen for our fourth book/movie review season. Back on track after the holidays. As usual, the wordy one will examine the text of a famed volume later adapted to film, which I will review. In this case, she’ll be looking at the source publication from 1979 that quietly became the film of the same name in 1983.
The Right Stuff, penned by Tom Wolfe during the downturn that was the 70s, was the journalist’s epic look back at the heroism and the lives of a few select individuals who became larger than life. Characterizing and chronicling each in turn as they gazed upward. Launching themselves, a program and a country, to the heavens. Becoming some of the major players in the fledgling national space project that arose as an aftermath of a world war. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: In the era immediately following World War II, as a byproduct of the technological breakthroughs that came with it, the United States sought to expand its reach in the air and beyond. Breaking the sound barrier, drawing those tasked with the dangerous job of going ever faster, and thus catapulting the country passed the edge of our atmosphere. Even further than thought possible, the test pilots of the Air Force, Navy, and Marines spearheaded the effort, fueled by the budding Cold War with the U.S.S.R., helped hurl both countries in a race for the highest ground possible. Space. The story centers on Project Mercury, the early human spaceflight program, and the pilots who hoped to prove that they had the mythical “The Right Stuff” to get it done.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
Growing up during the 60s, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the recurrent reports of those heading ever higher. Looking up, I wondered what the heavens held, and what it took to point yourself skyward, atop a rocket, as the ground fell quickly below you. Enthralled as it all came across TV, the black and white kind, along with the previous decade’s sci-fi movies that interrupted the news flashes I eyed. Some of those already shaped by the thought of escaping the bounds of gravity. My mind awed at it all. Enough to captivate this dreamer right through to 20 July 1969, as Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon, and beyond.
The record of history on film is wrought with all kinds of results. Some great on an epic scale, Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, even if historians still debate the romanticized depiction of the character on the big screen (where it should always remain to be seen, in my opinion). All the way through to the pop ideals of say Michael Bay and his Pearl Harbor film — which should come with a warning label to dissuade any viewer thinking it contains but modicum of historical veracity. Needless to say, history can range far and wide in quality and accuracy. Perhaps that’s why a film like The Right Stuff was downright awe-inspiring.
“Dear Lord, please don’t let me fuck up.”
What director/writer Philip Kaufman achieved in adapting Tom Wolfe’s book of the early U.S. space program to film was nothing of short of that. Kaufman, who had one decent (The Great Northfield Raid) and one great (scripting The Outlaw Josey Wales before Clint Eastwood canned him as director) Western to his credit, and the underrated gem The Wanderers to round out his 70s filmography, snuck in classic for the ages. Fittingly, during the Reagan 80s. The trouble was no one knew it. Perhaps it was the big hair, shoulder pads and leg-warmers that seemingly distracted many during that time. Who knows? Missed it they did, though.
Speaking of awards season, you’d think the vaunted Academy would have recognized the work. They tried. As my colleague Richard pointed out, “…despite getting a second public relations/advertising boost when it was nominated for a bucketload of awards, it still did not resonate with audiences.” In spite of one of the great book condensations ever, by Kaufman himself, only a few of the technical nominations got gold statues, along with Bill Conti’s rousing score. Inanely, the Oscars hadn’t offered nominations for adapted screenplay or director for this. Enough to make you feel like Alan Shepard, especially after John Glenn orbited the Earth.
With all due to respect to James L. Brooks, and Jack Nicholson portraying an astronaut, Terms of Endearment my ass.
Chuck Yeager: “Hey, Ridley, ya got any Beeman’s?”
Jack Ridley: “Yeah, I think I got me a stick.”
Chuck Yeager: “Loan me some, will ya? I’ll pay ya back later.”
Jack Ridley: “Fair enough.”
Depicting the nascent Project Mercury in human terms, using those chosen few among the select Seven, or the others who pioneered and/or died on the high desert outskirts that was Edwards Air Force base in the late-40s and 50s, in the age of the Space Shuttle, may have appeared quaint. Wolfe’s book, one that read like a novel, translated that history beyond the rah-rah reporting of the day. Much of which recalled the line from L.A. Confidential, “That’s what they tell ya, anyway. Because they’re selling an image. They’re selling it through movies, radio, and television.” The truth grimmer, more unpolished than what NASA, or LIFE magazine, would ever admit to back then.
The Right Stuff film would do the same as its source material. Relating that unspoken, Hell, not even rumored even among themselves, quality of what it took to pilot an aircraft (the newly constructed for the auspicious dream of punching a hole in the sky variety) beyond the edge of its performance envelope and bring back in one piece. Its test pilot, too. A breed that cast itself apart, one set to climb the steepest of inclines, the veritable ziggurat of uniquely skilled men where only the best in such line of work compared themselves to.
Oh, and keep all such thoughts and differentiation to the tight-lipped test pilots themselves, thank you very much.
“I tell you, we got two categories of pilots around here. We got your prime pilots that get all the hot planes, and we got your pud-knockers who dream about getting the hot planes. Now what are you two pud-knockers gonna have? Huh?”
This was who the newly formed space program had by the 1950s, by design or pure accident, tied their project to. It was what Philip Kaufman captured, by way of some wonderful writing, stellar cinematography (care of Caleb Deschanel) and the supreme role casting (by the legend that is Lynn Stalmaster) of a few then unknown, or little known, character actors who happened to have keen resemblances to the real, albeit for some bigger than life, personas and rose to the occasion with their portrayals on the movie screen.
Sam Shepard gave the living legend Chuck Yeager his due, even if he was better known back then more as a playwright than a supporting actor Oscar nominee, Ed Harris (John Glenn), Scott Glenn (Alan Shepard), Fred Ward (Gus Grissom), Lance Henriksen (Walter Schirra), Dennis Quaid (Gordon Cooper), Scott Paulin (Deke Slayton) and Charles Franks as Scott Carpenter going above and beyond. Heck, even Donald Moffat, back from that infamous couch session John Carpenter constructed for The Thing, almost stole the show as Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The ambitions, the gunslinger-type egos, and all too human fallibility among the accomplished test pilots, and the soon-to-be ‘Star Voyager’ rookies, on an epic display. In dramatic and surprisingly humorous tones. To include the rollercoaster emotions of the wives (Pamela Reed, Veronica Cartwright, Mary Jo Deschanel the standouts), who married into it right along with their husbands. Their lot, too, in the bargain. Even burying those spouses who ‘augered in’ or ‘screwed-the-pooch’ as part of The Military Wife’s Compact. All distinctly laid lyrically bare in the film.
It was mesmerizing to watch, especially if you hadn’t known about it.
Quite the achievement. Really. At least for those who saw it. History, painted across the sky on to celluloid. In the context of real adventure among those who easily could have been ‘burned beyond recognition’ (as did happen often during those heady post-WWII days of test aircraft, and as would later befall one of the original Mercury Seven). Save for their talent at pushing the envelope, beyond the edge any sane human being would ever attempt, let alone imagine, with experimental craft (be it air or space). And calmly reel it all back in. Though true to history, it’s a bit inconceivable, yet there on film The Right Stuff encapsulated those bygone days.
The filmmakers made the best of the all 80s-era tools [read non-CGI] at their disposal. Archival NASA film footage, some really quite breathtaking to see, especially up on a large screen. Splendid sound editing by Jay Boekelheide (who took home one of the four Oscars the film received). And the extraordinary model work, the wooden large scale mock-ups of the Mercury capsule, and the smaller ones used for the spectacular aerial sequences capturing the authentic aircraft that broke the Sound Barrier, Mach Two and beyond, in all their glory. In due course, it made the film age extraordinarily well in the 30+ years that have passed since its initial release.
Eat that Pearl Harbor.
Through it all, Kaufman’s exceptional work inaugurated not only author Wolfe’s words, the pilot-speak that became part our culture’s vernacular as much as the venerable Western’s, a point his film attempted to link, but influenced later filmmakers in the process. My wife pointed out the scene where Jane Dornacker’s intimidating Nurse Murch mysteriously peered at her lab rat astronaut candidates through the locked door’s circular window was recreated by Steven Spielberg’s velociraptors, framed much the same as they looked to make Hammond’s grand kids a meal ten years later with Jurassic Park. A striking homage, if we say so.
That, and director Ron Howard pretty much attempted to model most of Apollo 13 around this film — Gus Grissom’s ill-fated pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission his film’s blunt lead-in.
Besides the beauty and spectacle The Right Stuff inspired, marveling the courage and tenacity of a phenomenal group of individuals, was that the film brought the huge undertaking for a project such as this not only into stark clarity, but on very personal terms. The monumental, even audacious, enterprise relatable at a level any viewer could see, as well as feel. If like me, lucky enough to catch the epic on a movie screen. Quite a feat, even if it took over three hours to get there. The ride, like the effort to reach for the stars, ultimately worth the trip.
After all these years, from the first time I saw this three decades back at a long forgotten movie preview in Century City, to screening its pearl anniversary Blu-ray last weekend for my children’s introduction, the film still manages to move me. To utterly fascinate at space travel’s beginning, and conjure me right back to a darkened living room in the summer of ’69 to watch the most momentous culmination I’d ever see on television. Pardon my French, but “Fuckin’ A, bubba.”
“The Mercury program was over. Four years later, astronaut Gus Grissom was killed, along with astronauts White and Chaffee, when fire swept through their Apollo capsule. But on that glorious day in May 1963, Gordo Cooper went higher, farther, and faster than any other American – 22 complete orbits around the world; he was the last American ever to go into space alone. And for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.”
For more reading of this stellar film, I highly recommend the following reviews by my blogging colleagues on their wonderful sites: