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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 Stuff."

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 Mercury astronauts.

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 relationships.

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 palpably real.

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 right stuff.

San Francisco Chronicle October 21 1983

 

 

 

 

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