With all the hullabaloo surrounding Gravity and the realistic science fiction that it embodies, it’s nice to remember that several other movies have embraced the dramatic possibilities of space exploration. One of them, The Right Stuff, is more historical docudrama than far-flung space opera, but it serves as a telling reminder that the stories of real-life astronauts can hold us as enthralled as those of any fictional counterparts.
And just as the astronauts themselves are about more than riding rockets and pushing new frontiers, The Right Stuff is about more than just space exploration. It looks at America during a key part of our development, noting what’s great about our country in the same breath that it decries our shortcomings. No one else could have gone to the moon like we did… and no one else could have hyped the event so crassly as to lose the essence of its importance. Author Tom Wolfe found the sweet spot between those two poles with the Mercury Program: our first venture into space, built on the back of unknown test pilots and hyped by a press hungry for heroes to throw against the Soviet Union.
As history, it’s irresistible. As a statement about who we are as a country, it may have no peer. And Philip Kaufman brought it all to life in superbly unmatched ways. He starts at Edwards Air Force Base north of Los Angeles, where a young cowboy named Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) volunteers to test a new plane designed to break the sound barrier. He and his fellow pilots are basically guinea pigs for the scientists, who soon find themselves in race with the Russians to explore the final frontier. Their efforts catch on with the media, as do the seven pilots they ultimately choose to go into space as Mercury astronauts. Their ranks include John Glenn (Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grisson (Fred Ward), and they are ultimately lionized as American heroes while Yeager and his ilk are more or less left behind.
Members of the press act like snake oil salesmen, pedaling an image of these men as impossibly pure heroes. Only Glenn matches the facade; the rest have to smile and hide their sins while the cameras click, know that they could be tossed aside and the mission tarnished if the public learned the truth. That, of course, comes on top of being strapped to a rocket and blasted into the stratosphere, using barely tested technology that could fry them in an instant. One by one, they all rise to the challenge, proving their mettle beneath an unflinching lens and heralding America’s first steps beyond our planet.
Like all great drama, it holds us rapt from the first scene, even though history tells us exactly, precisely how it all turns out. Mostly it wraps us up in the lives of the pilots, starting with Yeager and continuing through his successors. They’re flawed in many ways – “pud-knockers” as one observer puts it – but they seize the opportunity put before them without hesitation and come through with flying colors. It makes you proud to be an American: not false, preening jingoism, but the quiet assurance that acknowledges our cultural shortcomings before embracing the greatness we’re capable of.
Beyond that, it’s just a grand adventure story, truer than any ever told and spread across the horizon itself. Kaufman keeps the tension high as each step in the program carries new promise and new dangers. He draws out the scenario with humor and heart, but also with a real sense of the consequences of failure, both for the men involved and for the program itself. Every element is rendered with pure perfection. There’s hardly a single moment out of step. Rarely has a film been assembled with such an exquisite combination of artistry and technical prowess.
Naturally, it bombed like the Enola Gay when it was first released, and suffered an ignominious Oscar defeat at the hands of Terms of Endearment. But time has shown its true colors. In these polarizing days, it’s a refreshing reminder of what national unity really meant: its warts-and-all-portrayal strengthens rather than questions the nature of our character. Science fiction? Science fact? It’s all the same to The Right Stuff, one of the best films of this or any other decade.