“…whoever controls the high ground of space controls the world. The Roman Empire controlled the world because it could build roads. Later, the British Empire was dominant because they had ships. In the Air Stage, we were powerful because we had the airplane. And now the Communists have established a foothold in outer space. Pretty soon they’ll have damned space platforms so they can drop nuclear bombs on us, like rocks from a highway overpass. Now how in the hell did they ever get ahead of us?“‘
October 4, 1957: The race for space was on, and America was behind.
Based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 best-selling novel of the same name, The Right Stuff opened in limited release on October 21st, 1983, thirty years ago today. As with the book from which it sprang, the film recounts the birth of the space age, beginning with Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier on October 14th, 1947 and proceeding through the evolution of ever-faster combat aircraft and the pilots charged with testing them in pursuit of total air supremacy. Then comes that fateful day in October 1957 when the Soviet Union launches the small satellite Sputnik into orbit, and all eyes turn to the stars and wonder if space itself might be the next challenge to humanity’s search for knowledge, or simply another battlefield.
Driven to beat the Russians at all costs, President Eisenhower directs the fledgling National Aeronautics and Space Administration to get on with matching or beating their Communist counterparts by getting men into space, and the search for America’s first astronauts begins. After months of tests, screenings and interviews, seven pilots are chosen: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra, Deke Slayton and Gordon Cooper. These are the men who will take America to space as Project Mercury gets underway.
Hot damn, but do I love this movie.
Directed by Phillip Kaufman from a script he wrote adapting Wolfe’s novel, The Right Stuff is a sweeping tale that takes its time chronicling the birth of the American space program with drama, suspense, humor and elation. Working to breathe life into the story is an all-star cast in the finest tradition of epic Hollywood films of the 1950s and 60s, anchored by stellar performances from the likes of Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid and Fred Ward and featuring solid supporting turns from Veronica Cartwright, Barbara Hershey, Mary Jo Deschanel, Donald Moffat, and Levon Helm along with so many others. Helm has double duty in the movie, acting as Chuck Yeager’s longtime friend, fellow pilot and ever-reliable supplier of Beeman’s chewing gum, Jack Ridley, while lending his distinctive voice as the film’s narrator. The cinematography is breathtaking, the dialogue crackling and filled with so many gems that I’m almost certain you could hold up your end of just about any conversation with quotes from this thing.
Topping off the whole wondrous affair is a rousing score by Bill Conti, which is among my very favorite film soundtracks EVER. The score did not enjoy a proper release at the time the movie was in theaters, and for years it was something of a Holy Grail for many a movie score collector until Conti himself saw fit to release a special limited edition CD of the music in 2009. I was convinced I might well have to murder someone in order to obtain a copy of that thing, but as has often been the case, my hetero life mate Kevin Dilmore performed some of that magic only he can do and put hands on a copy that made its way to me.
Like the book, The Right Stuff takes several liberties with the historical record for the sake of heightening drama (or, on occasion, humor), most notably in its portrayal of Gus Grissom and the events surrounding the loss of his Mercury capsule, Liberty Bell 7. Though believed at the time to be responsible for prematurely opening the ship’s hatch and causing the craft to flood and sink, Grissom later was exonerated of such allegations and suspicions. Even though this was known at the time of the film’s production, the decision was made by Kaufman to stick to the book’s version of events.
Opinions with respect to the film’s accuracy at the time of its release varied even among the surviving Mercury astronauts, but that did not stop The Right Stuff from becoming a critical success as well as earning eight Academy Award nominations before winning four Oscars. The box office response was a different story, however, as it failed to attract movie goers, but it earned second life on cable broadcasts and home video rentals. The film has since come to be widely considered as a modern classic as well as one of the best movies of the 1980s. It’s definitely one of those films I can watch whenever I happen across it on TV, and for my money The Right Stuff makes for one half of a fantastic double bill on a rainy Saturday when paired with Apollo 13.
(Then, on Sunday, I counter it with Armageddon and Space Cowboys. That’s right. I said it.)
Yeah, I know it’s Monday, but I think I’m going to have to watch this one tonight, anyway.
Hey, Ridley! Got any Beeman’s?