The Right Stuff gives us a 1980’s gloss on America’s first astronaut heroes, warts and all.
The story begins in the 1940’s, with the Air Force trying to find a pilot who could break the sound barrier and live to tell about it. Near the beginning of the movie, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) rides his horse to an Air Force base to inspect the plane intended to break the barrier. The plane’s ignition is spewing flames and looks as though it could take off on its own. The symbolism is none too subtle: Test pilots were the last American cowboys, and Yeager is going to have to lasso this wild horse on his own.
Eventually he does so, leaving other test pilots with new worlds to conquer. “Hot-dog” pilots descend upon Edwards Air Force Base to break Yeager’s records, and Yeager counter by topping the record-breakers. It seems as though there are no more frontiers to tame, until the Russians get a man into space before the Americans. Soon NASA is looking for space jockeys who have “the right stuff,” which means having the guts to fly into space and also look good for the press while they’re doing it.
While The Right Stuff has drawn raves over the years, its critics have contended that the movie displays broad caricatures instead of characters. (Lyndon Johnson, then the vice-president who helped get the space program started, is shown as a yahoo, though his most riotous line of dialogue is said to be based on fact.) I prefer to think that the movie shows its heroes to be all too human, rather than the standard movie heroes of perfection. The space program was obviously making up its rules as it went along, and it asked its pilots to do things that hadn’t been asked of them before. (When a nurse gives Gordon Cooper [Dennis Quaid] a test tube to fill with a particular type of bodily fluid, his reaction is one for the books.)
The cast in uniformly good. Like the pilots they portray, Shepard, Quaid, Scott Glenn, and especially Ed Harris as John Glenn, all come through with flying colors. As NASA housewives who could have come off as drab, Barbara Hershey and Pamela Reed, among others, give nice shadings to their roles. Best of all are the Washington bureaucrats trying to save face — Donald Moffat savoring the role of Vice-President Johnson, and Jeff Goldblum and comedy veteran Harry Shearer as Washington’s answer to Laurel and Hardy.
The movie is not quite perfect. At a little over three hours, it could have used a little trimming. It has a couple of endings too many, and some gaps in continuity. (One scene depicts bar-hopping women hoping to “conquer” all of the astronauts, and the scene inexplicably cuts from John Glenn eyeing the women to Glenn lecturing his fellow astronauts on abstinence.)
But the movie is never less than engrossing, and if you can tolerate the machismo banter, it’s worth it to see a portrait of some flawed men who nevertheless had what it took to conquer space.