'The Right Stuff': THR's 1983 Review

Photofest
Dennis Quaid in 'The Right Stuff' (1983)
Rarely has a film made a historic accomplishment seem so vivid and personal.

On Oct. 21, 1983, Warner Bros. launched a 194-minute space epic, The Right Stuff, which went on to win four Oscars at the 56th Academy Awards. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.

While "an American epic" would properly characterize the sweep and scope of Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff's monumental production The Right Stuff, it fails to convey the warm and human essence of the film, the struggle of seven men (and their wives) to make their country dominant in space. 

The astronauts are heroes, no doubt about it. As space pioneer Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) bitterly points out, these men all knew the risks they were taking as they rode their primitive capsules into space. They knew they were powered by rockets that could explode them into the tiniest of atoms. There were the fierce fires of re-entry that could reduce them to cinders, as well as the possibility of no re-entry, leaving them to perish miserably in their orbits. Yet these men eagerly took those risks. They were made of the right stuff. 

So is this movie, celebrating their achievements — and ours. Rarely has a film made a historic accomplishment seem so vivid and personal. The flight footage, from Yeager's first successful breaking of the sound barrier to Gordon Cooper's (Dennis Quaid) final orbiting, is never less than spectacular; but what matters is that we have come to know and care about those men in their primitive jets and bell-shaped capsules. We know the grueling training and testing they went through, we know their personalities, their goals, their dreams. We also know their wives and families, and the agony of waiting to learn whether or not their loved ones will be coming home.

If this sounds familiar, even sentimental, it's saved by the toughness and virile humor of director-writer Philip Kaufman's script. Never far from the center of the flame is the astronaut's battle against becoming "lab rabbits," subject to the prying and poking of white-smocked researchers who seem convinced that a chimpanzee can be trained to do anything that a man can do in space, and be far more tractable in the process. Later, there is the battle with the research scientists, who have prepared a capsule without windows, escape hatch or steering controls. And still later is the fight with NASA's PR people (in the person of John P. Ryan), who want to extract every last inch of publicity from their daring exploits, no matter how much of their privacy is invaded. (Lyndon B. Johnson, portrayed with unflattering accuracy by Donald Moffat, apparently had his own space program — newspaper space — garnered by his sponsorship of the NASA program. If John Glenn is ever elected president, it could well be for his spirited defense of his wife's wish not to entertain LBJ for the TV cameras and his ability to stand up to the establishment.)

With Glenn, at least as played by smiling, blue-eyed Ed Harris, by far the most appealing and dimensioned of the group, one is inevitably led to ponder the political implications of The Right Stuff, even though, I dare say, this was farthest from the producers' minds when they made it. Nevertheless, here in glowing Technicolor, is the portrait that every politico strives to paint of himself on the eve of his candidacy — a good American, clean-living, outspoken in the face of injustice or stupidity, a good family man, a God-fearing Christian. It all works within the context of the film, but Walter Mondale still might consider putting in a bid for equal time. 

In keeping with the quality of this production, the casting is uniformly expert and exciting. When Robert Beer leans under the shadows, you catch your breath: You're looking full into the face of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Not even Rich Little could have created a more perfect LBJ caricature than Moffat; and even though John Denver plays Henry Luce in semi-darkness, anyone who ever met the late Time/Life executive will realize the accuracy of his quirky portrait. John F. Kennedy is there as well, but in newsreel footage so skillfully intercut that he also seems to be a member of the cast. Eric Sevareid contributes a cameo as — Eric Sevareid, and Hollywood insiders will no doubt smile at screenwriter Edward Anhalt's occasional appearance as a demonic Russian designer. 

Of the other astronauts, young Quaid is especially appealing as the cocky, ever grinning Gordon Cooper (Quaid met Cooper in preparation for the role); Scott Glenn displays a lean, quiet self-confidence as Alan Shepard; and Fred Ward's Gus Grissom is earthy and unpretentious in what is perhaps the film's most demanding role. By contrast, the three other astronauts — Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin) and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen) — fade pretty much into the background. It would be too much to demand of an already lengthy film that it delve into the details of each of its heroes' lives. 

But dominating The Right Stuff, both by his performance and sheer physical presence, is Shepard. NASA, the film explains, was a spinoff from the U.S. Air Force's early attempt to break the sound barrier. Once that was accomplished by jet-powered aircraft, NASA turned its attention to rockets. But the Air Force — and Yeager — continued to probe the skies with ever-more sophisticated swept-wing craft. The climax of the film is intercut between Yeager's doomed attempt to break Mach 4 in a plane and a celebration for the astronauts in Houston where Sally Rand (Peggy Davis) performs her celebrated fan dance. The cuts between the gold-lit graceful fans on the stage and the shuddering, screaming plane in the wild blue yonder wordlessly epitomize man's need to conquer the air. Shepard's Yeager is a selfless, self-deprecating man who cheerfully shuns the chance to become "Spam in a can" in order to do his own thing — which happens to be what he, too, thinks is right for America. Barbara Hershey is both winning and sympathetic as his supportive wife. 

There are, I suppose, some inevitable stumbles in a film this lengthy (over three hours without an intermission) and ambitious. Royal Dano, early introduced as a sort of dark angel whose presence presages imminent death, abruptly disappears in the last half of the film, as if death had taken a holiday. Kim Stanley, proprietress of Pancho's Fly-in, the flyboys' local watering hold in the Mojave, seems more determined to play a character than to be one. The astronauts' wives, though nicely cast, tend to blur into one another, with only Pamela Reed (Trudy Cooper) and Mary Jo Deschanel (as shy, inarticulate Annie Glenn) given enough footage to create any lasting impression. And a sequence at Cocoa Beach, where a couple of B-list girls make a play for the astronauts, seems straight out of a James Bond movie. 

What does impress, however, is the Ladd Company's rich and sumptuous production values, with San Francisco's financial district standing in for John Glenn's ticker-tape parade up New York's Fifth Avenue, the Cow Palace doubling for Houston's then-new Astrodome and a meeting room in the San Francisco Opera House becoming a lavish governmental board room in Washington, D.C. Without claiming any special expertise in military hardware, I can say that the re-creation of control rooms and block houses of the late '50s and early '60s are so detailed and exact that it's impossible to detect where they are intercut with actual NASA footage. 

Without question, the main credit must go to Philip Kaufman, whose script based on Tom Wolfe's book, saw these men firmly as heroes, and whose direction kept them always in a heroic mold. Credit also Caleb Deschanel, whose ground footage often bathed in a golden-brown hue, contrasts sharply and effectively with the bright blue of the open skies. The film reaches a visual high as Glenn circles the Earth three times, and we watch the quick passage from day to night and back to day again; but whether this is pure Deschanel or the work of the picture's skilled effects team is something only insiders can tell. Or, for that matter, the film's climatic re-creation of Yeager's unauthorized, shattering climb to the heavens in the new NF-104. It's moviemaking magic at its awesome best. 

Bill Conti has contributed a pulse-pounding score, augmented by a dozen or so military marches and classical excerpts that are wholly appropriate to the tone of the film. 

A Warner Bros. release, The Right Stuff emerges as the picture of the year, one that its producers can be proud of, the industry can be proud of and which Americans can be proud of. Why? Because for once Americans, in their modesty, are shown as heroes, and heroes that we can all identify with. It makes you wonder, quite suddenly, why there aren't more movies like this. — Arthur Knight, originally published on Oct. 11, 1983

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