The Right Stuff
For capturing the whole three-ring, rip-roaring
American circus — hoopla, hypocrisy and heroism —
there has never been a movie like "The Right
With intelligent, loving appreciation and astonishing
ingenuity, director/writer Philip Kaufman unfolds
a spellbinding panorama of the craziness, the crassness,
the politicking, the media manipulation, the technology,
the competition and courage that are part and parcel
of this contradictory country. Like Tom Wolfe's book,
the film wittily examines the individual idiosyncracies
and goofiness that marked the race into space from
the first jet tests in 1947 to the lift-off of the
last Mercury capsule in 1963.
It separates the fake aura of righteousness from
the complex stuff of real character. In the barrage
of media speculation about how the film will affect
the presidential race, its vital "message" is
being overlooked: "Hey, fellas, all this stuff
and nonsense is our country, let's love it but laugh
at it too."
In a truly exceptional way, the movie has something
that will appeal to everyone, from the most cynical
to the most sanctimonious. For all its fun with the
press, the astronauts and the politicians, there
is nothing nasty or mean-spirited in the humor.
For someone like myself — more worried about life
on earth than on other planets — the production is
a thrilling eye-opener, as it recreates the excitement
of man's first venture into a new age of exploration.
The film moves with such rhythmic editing and style,
from the streaking, screaming jet planes and tragic
failures to the human conflicts and comedy that the
three hours and twelve minutes speed by.
To get THAT political question of politics over with, the film will certainly
burnish the image of John Glenn, who is running for president, but as "The Right
Stuff" repeatedly reminds us: a larger-than-life
image ain't necessarily the same thing as having
the right stuff at the right time.
One thing is certain: Ed Harris has the right charisma
for a new movie star. His portrayal of Glenn, the
Mercury 7 astronaut-on-the-make, burns with ambition
as well as finely turned moral certitudes and platitudes.
Harris expresses them with sincere conviction.
Yet there's not a woman around who will not emotionally
applaud the tenderness he shows his wife and his
staunch support for her refusal to let Lyndon B.
Johnson and the television cameras into their home
because she is afraid of stuttering in public. Mary
Jo Deschanel's Annie Glenn has a lovely radiance
touched with anxiety for her husband's safety and mischievous
understanding of his Boy Scout do-right energy. Harris
makes his presence felt in the film the way that
Glenn did stepping out in the forefront of the seven
Nevertheless, just as Chuck Yeager seized Tom Wolfe's
imagination as the man with the real right stuff,
so Sam Shepard outshines them all, even though it's
a first-rate cast all the way down the line. As
Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier,
Shepard has a special laid-back charm, comprising
a quietly secure daredevil spirit and a strength
of character that is irresistible. Whether sardonic
about the astronauts who won't really be in control
of those space capsules, sympathetic toward one flier's
bad luck or sharing a flirtatious moment with his
wife (Barbara Hershey), Shepard is terrific. If he
keeps on acting like this, Shepard, a Pulitizer Prize-winning
playwright, may not get back to his typewriter.
The real Yeager shows a glimpse of his own quirky
West Virginia wit in a cameo performance as a bartender
at Pancho's, the hangout for the flyboys at Edwards
Air Force Base. Kim Stanley is Pancho, the tough-minded
ex-test pilot who rules the roost where only dead
fliers merit pin-up pictures on the wall.
In one moving scene, Hershey complains with bitter
sadness that the government spends millions training
men to be pilots, but not one cent on teaching the
women how to be their heroic wives. Kaufman is particularly
intuitive in handling the pent-up resentment and
fears of the women, as well as their strained marital
Their ever-present anxieties are summed up in one
brilliant flash when Gordon Cooper (played with nifty
cockiness by Dennis Quaid) offers a charred hot dog
to his wife. Her shudder speaks volumes. Pamela Reed
is outstanding in that part, fed up with Gordo's
braggadocio, but enjoying it a little bit too. She's
angry enough to leave him and sympathetic enough
to come back when it looks as though one requirement
for an Astronaut/Hero is a happy hearth and home.
There is also a fully realized depth and tension
to the relationship between Gus and Betty Grissom,
splendidly performed by Fred Ward , who has the rugged
sober-sided appeal of John Garfield, and Veronica
Cartwright. When a glitch ruins Grissom's orbit and
he is given a very muted official welcome back, Cartwright's
disappointment at missing out on all the glory is
The film doesn't laugh at Betty's anguish about not
having a chance to meet Jackie Kennedy at the White
House, but it has a marvelous time panning fake glory
in general. Scott Beach and Drew Eshelman, with their
echt-Deutsch accents, are amusingly stiff as "our" German
scientists showing a high moral tone in trying to
out-do the Soviet Union's German rocket experts.
The medical selection process is hilarious, from
the dead-pan ferocity of Jane Dornacker's nurse to
the poor chimpanzee who has to take some of the same
tests as the human chumps.
The special effects that combine NASA astronaut
film footage with the imaginative work of Gary Guiterrez
and Jordan Belson, and the superb cinematography
of Caleb Deschanel are spectacular.
As the permanent press corps, San Francisco's comic
group , I Fratelli Bologna, is everywhere, poking
cameras even into a diaper delivery service for any
new angle on an astronaut's life.
Donald Moffatt as Lyndon B. Johnson spoofs the former
vice president's outsized hunger for publicity but
it really isn't unkind. The gigantic Texas barbecue
Johnson throws for the astronauts, their wives and
seemingly the whole population of Texas is sensational
on many counts: the patriotic razzmatazz, the show-biz
flourish in the golden fans of Sally Rand, the way
the camera reveals the comradely feeling that finally
exists among the once-competitive astronauts.
And simultaneously — taking a little license with
time — while the jamboree goes on, out there over
the lonely desert, Chuck Yeager is once more risking
his life to test a new jet's power. It is a tension-wracked
near -finale that is guaranteed to bring down the
house in cheers.
Equally memorable in its myth-making sensibility
is the scene in which Australian Aborigines light
fires to cheer Glenn on his orbital flight. Too much
cannot be said about the contributions of the team
that made this remarkable movie possible, but when
Oscar time comes around, I think they'll be up there
taking their bows. Philip Kaufman — whose films from
the "White Dawn" to "Invasion of the
Body Snatchers", always have had the stamp of
humor and humanity — may finally achieve the recognition
he deserves. In a tinseltown dominated by flimflam
and false values, he is a rare example of that stubborn
integrity which is surely a vital ingredient in the
San Francisco Chronicle October 21 1983