Tom Wolfe has a theory—a small one, a speculation—as to why Philip Kaufman’s movie version of his book The Right Stuff didn’t become a hit on its initial release in late 1983. The film was hyped to the skies, and nominated for eight Oscars (winning four); but it didn’t really catch on with the moviegoing public until later in the decade, when it was released on VHS and played on television. In a featurette on the Right Stuff 30th-anniversary Blu-ray set (which duplicates the special features from an earlier DVD edition), Wolfe says that back in 1983, he casually asked some people outside of a cinema why they were seeing The Big Chill instead of The Right Stuff, and these folks said that they planned to catch up to it later, because they knew it was “important,” especially in regards to “the upcoming election,” and the potential presidential candidacy of former-astronaut-turned-senator John Glenn. They were avoiding the movie at that particular moment in time because it had the faint stink of a campaign ad.
I was 13 when The Right Stuff was released, and I have no memory of ever thinking of the film as overtly political—covertly, yes, but nothing like a tract. But then, I didn’t see The Right Stuff in 1983, either. I caught up with it on videotape a couple of years later, by which time I’d read Wolfe’s book, and was enthralled by his sweeping saga of the Mercury Seven astronauts and the daring test pilots who helped set the tone for the United States’ space program. For me, the book and the movie are both grand portraits of Americana, rendered with Wolfe’s usual half-winking gusto, which could be interpreted as bold sincerity or deep cynicism. Wolfe offered a way of looking at the world that was highly attractive to me back then, and still is to some extent, because it’s so knowing, while rarely shading into the world-weary. Wolfe slaps labels on everything, reducing big stories to what he sees as their essential ideas and characters, all rendered with a cartoon-like clarity. And Kaufman does the same with his version of Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, paring it back to the pieces he knew he could do the most with, to tell the story he wanted to tell.
Elsewhere on the Blu-ray, actor Fred Ward (who plays ill-fated astronaut Gus Grissom) says of The Right Stuff, “There’s three different films there.” Two of them run in tandem: There’s the underdog sports drama, which depicts the Mercury Seven as a band of cocky rivals who try to out-jock each other on the way to becoming a genuine brotherhood. And there’s the social satire, which portrays the politicians and press as a symbiotic organism, thriving on bullshit, turning every aspect of the astronauts’ lives into a vulgar spectacle. Kaufman plays up the comedy in the later sequences by casting Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer as overmatched government stooges, and by hiring the San Francisco improv troupe Fratelli Bologna to play the relentless mob of camera-wielding reporters (nearly always accompanied on the soundtrack by what sounds like a nest of rattlesnakes). Taking his cues from Wolfe, Kaufman doesn’t skimp on the absurdity. Even during the Mercury Seven scenes, The Right Stuff spends more time showing the astronauts jerking off for a sperm-motility study, and suffering from a test that requires them to hold an inflated balloon in their rectums, than it does showing them in training for their actual space flights.
The third film nestled within The Right Stuff serves as both a counterpoint to and explanation for the other two. This is the story of Chuck Yeager (played by an Oscar-nominated Sam Shepard), the Air Force test pilot who mostly toiled in obscurity, content to live his life as the biggest, coolest stud in a community populated by hot dogs and pretenders. The Mercury Seven begin The Right Stuff in Yeager’s shadow, with the Air Force recruits in particular knowing they’ll never make it to “the top of the ol’ pyramid” so long as they stay in Yeager’s vicinity. So they carry what they believe to be the values of Edwards Air Force Base with them to NASA: the competitiveness, the nonchalance, and the fervent belief that dying is for pudknockers.
Kaufman shoots the Yeager scenes like he’s making a combination of Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings and one of those 1970s “new Westerns”—the kind that set stoic cowboys against a backdrop of a frontier being consumed by signs of progress. When Kaufman decided his Yeager had to be played by Shepard (a playwright who hadn’t done much screen acting), he allayed his producers’ concerns by cutting Yeager’s lines back considerably, which further emphasizes the character’s iconic quality. A lot of Yeager’s story is told through framing, lighting, set design, and costuming. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel makes Shepard look as rugged as the Southern California desert, thanks to his habit of waiting to roll camera until the sun hung just right. Meanwhile, as the years pass, Yeager’s flight suits and jets get fancier and shinier, as the world at large moves into the space age.
The use of Shepard and Fratelli Bologna aren’t Kaufman’s only eccentric touches. The Right Stuff has Levon Helm—drummer for The Band—playing Yeager’s right-hand man and the movie’s narrator. It has Yeager himself popping up in the back of one scene, listening to Harry Shearer’s character explain why Chuck Yeager could never be an astronaut. Kaufman turned the visual effects over to Gary Gutierrez’s USFX team, encouraging them to make creative use of models; he employed avant-garde filmmaker Jordan Belson to create the trippy textures of space and sky. Then he told his editors to disregard screen direction in the aerial sequences, and instead cut to create a visceral rush, letting the actors’ reaction shots give the audience what it needed to fill in any gaps. (If nothing else, The Right Stuff conveys the sheer speed and height that its test pilots and astronauts attained, making the act of orbiting Earth look akin to careening out of control on an icy road.) All this is supported by a rousing, Oscar-winning Bill Conti score that sounds like a retro-futuristic riff on Aaron Copland.
Kaufman doesn’t dramatize every Mercury Seven mission—and gives less than a minute of total screen time to Wally Schirra (played by Lance Henriksen)—but spends roughly five minutes on the fan-dance that Sally Rand performs at a party in the astronauts’ honor, and five more on a mystical aboriginal bonfire in Australia on the night of John Glenn’s trip around Earth. When Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) becomes the first American in space, Kaufman downplays the actual trip and instead dwells on how urgently Shepard had to pee, illustrated with cutaways to firehoses and coffee pouring. He also turns the controversial conclusion of Grissom’s mission into a harrowing suspense sequence, with the astronaut flailing in a vast ocean while his capsule sinks. The tone of the film is constantly changing, from comedy to action to romance. Shot almost entirely in San Francisco, and far more freewheeling in its approach than the average Oscar-worthy period-piece, The Right Stuff is the kind of half-arthouse/half-Hollywood movie Francis Ford Coppola meant to make when he founded American Zoetrope. (Harry Shearer describes it well: “[It’s] a movie that is true, but stylized.”)
The Right Stuff Blu-ray featurettes go fairly in-depth about the movie’s origins—initiated by producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, not long after Wolfe’s book was published—but it fails to mention the project’s first screenwriter, William Goldman, who writes extensively about his disappointment with the film in his book Adventures In The Screen Trade. Goldman says he saw in Wolfe’s book a way to lift the nation’s spirits in the wake of the Iranian hostage crisis and a decade of government scandals and economic malaise. “I wanted to say something positive about America,” Goldman says. But once Winkler and Chartoff hired Kaufman, the project took a turn. According to Goldman, at his first meeting with Kaufman, the director said, “I don’t want to do that, patriotism’s too easy, Ronald Reagan’s patriotic and who wants that?” In Goldman’s mind, “What Phil wanted to say was that America was going down the tubes. That it had been great once, but those days were gone, and wasn’t that a shame.”
Yet the audiences that stayed away from The Right Stuff in the fall of 1983 apparently assumed the film had a message closer to the one Goldman intended. To them—from the outside anyway—it looked too damned earnest.
So which is it: Is The Right Stuff a salute to American gumption, or an exposé of an American con-job? In the interviews on the Blu-ray, Winkler and Kaufman insist it’s both—just like Wolfe’s book. Winkler laughs at how the press presented the Mercury Seven as heroes before they’d even done anything, while Kaufman talks about how he tried to work as much of Wolfe’s language into the dialogue as possible, to show how this whole chapter in American history was a “grand circus.” (It’s revealing of Kaufman’s point of view that in his commentary track, during the big LBJ-hosted indoor barbecue that features Rand’s semi-striptease, the director sarcastically says, “So here’s America in all its glory.”) The Right Stuff has a lot of fun with technical failures both big and small—from an unplugged projector at a key White House briefing to a montage of NASA rockets blowing up on the launchpad—and even the real Mercury Seven astronauts interviewed for the Blu-ray featurettes second the movie’s implicit criticism of the media, saying the press rarely even tried to understand any of the science behind what they were doing, preferring to focus on the human-interest side while playing up the big show.
But Kaufman’s The Right Stuff—again, like Wolfe’s—is also genuinely admiring of the way these men spent much of their careers living in spartan conditions in exchange for the privilege of strapping themselves to experimental equipment powered by explosives. One of the reasons Kaufman spends so much of the first hour of his film on Yeager breaking the sound barrier is because it establishes the context for the Mercury Seven venturing into the unknown. No one was entirely sure what would happen to a person who sped past Mach 1; the resulting sonic boom led people on the ground to worry that Yeager’s plane had exploded. When a vehicle is going very, very fast, or very, very high, the people inside seem all the more fragile, and thus more courageous.
This is the “right stuff” that Wolfe spoke of, and that Kaufman ultimately affirms. The movie depicts the Mercury Seven as obnoxious and snippy at times, and distrustful of the genuine enthusiasm and grace of “Mr. Clean Marine,” John Glenn, so beautifully played in The Right Stuff by Ed Harris. (On the Blu-ray, Harris says the cast was just as competitive behind the scenes, which is borne out by a moment on the commentary track when Dennis Quaid, who played Gordon Cooper, watches one of the astronauts’ contests and says, “In the real world, I won this.”) But the pilots close ranks when it counts, and aside from Grissom, they keep cool in crises. Kaufman says in his opinion, “Heroism isn’t separated from how these guys lived,” meaning their jerkiness and their accomplishment go hand-in-hand. He tried to honor both in The Right Stuff.
Critic Pauline Kael—who liked the film overall—took issue with this, writing of the heroes, “They’re phony only on the outside. Their heroism, it turns out, is the real thing (which rather confuses the issue).” She balked at the idea that “a man’s value is determined by his physical courage.” I see it as a function of the way Wolfe and Kaufman operated as artists, wresting unruly material into shape by virtue of their own bullheadedness and prickly genius. For example, the most famous shot in The Right Stuff, of the suited-up astronauts walking together in slow motion down a long corridor, came to Kaufman in the middle of the shoot, when he noticed how beautiful the light looked in the studio hallway he walked through every day. A big part of “the right stuff” in both the book and the movie involves this kind of improvisation in a high-stakes situation: using a broom-handle to close the hatch on a supersonic jet; relying on a retro-rocket’s straps to hold loose heat-shields in place; taking time out during the production of a $25 million movie to insert a moment of sheer lyricism.
I’m also not sure Kael is correct when she suggests that Wolfe and Kaufman were too impressed by these men and their raging machismo to knock them down to size. As a teenager, in the thick of the Reagan era, what wowed me about both versions of The Right Stuff is how they subtly criticize the mentality of certainty, common to military men and paternalistic politicians. The Greek Chorus of The Right Stuff is the wives, who don’t wholly buy their husbands’ “it’s not the machine, it’s the man” reassurances when one of their own dies in an accident. The circular logic there is that men with “the right stuff” live, so pilots who are still alive must have that stuff. It’s the same logic used by anti-government politicians to justify gutting safety regulations. “Who needs car seats? I never had a car seat when I was a kid, and I’m fine.” (Because if I’d died in a car accident, like thousands of other children did, I wouldn’t be here to complain about car seats.)
The Right Stuff holds those contradictions: that a man can be brilliant, brave, and kind of an idiot, all at once; and that a government can accomplish amazing feats even if its ultimate goal is to distract the citizenry and outpace the enemy. As to why this more grown-up take on American life didn’t catch on with ticket-buyers in 1983, who can say? Maybe, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.,” consumers only saw the flag and wrongly assumed they were being led to a rally—which, a year before Reagan’s re-election and the attendant “morning in America” fervor, wasn’t something the populace was ready for yet. But The Right Stuff has endured as an American classic, which by its own standards means it was always the best.