Eric Hynes on The Right Stuff
When The Right Stuff was released in the fall of 1983, Time Magazine ran a cover story with the headline “Can a movie help make a president?” On the cover was Ed Harris, blue-eyed balding head in astronaut attire, featured for his filmic portrayal of John Glenn, the marine turned astronaut turned U.S. Senator whose campaign for the presidency was the real subject of Time’s feature. The answer to Time’s question—as it applied to the 1984 election—was in the negative. The film was never meant as partisan propagation (in fact, Glenn was critical both of the film and of Tom Wolfe’s source text), and Glenn lost handily to Walter Mondale in the Democratic primaries. It’s taken 20 years for the Democrats to get behind another bona fide military hero, and this time a handful of films are openly trying to make a president of this year’s candidate, John Kerry. At least one of those films—Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11—is making a nice profit from the endeavor, a notable exception to the supposed rule that politics do not sell.
The problem with The Right Stuff, which failed at the box office, was partly its conflation with Glenn’s failed campaign, but it was also due to a marketing campaign that sold the film as an American history lesson, a traveling exhibition of the U.S. space program. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a tough sell of a film that had a similarly slow distribution strategy, at least promised a mind-altering trip for Sixties youth eager for any such experience. The Right Stuff opened to an American public much changed from that of Kubrick’s film. Audience tastes, and the Hollywood studio films released to satisfy and pacify them, had become conservative and unadventurous, feeding on rubbery remakes and easily digested sequels. (1983 being arguably the first year—with many years to follow—of Hollywood at its crassest: Jaws 3D, Superman III, Psycho II, Staying Alive, a Breathless remake, two James Bond films, etc.) Those that turned out to see The Right Stuff, ostensibly compelled by the sexless civics come-on, must have been very confused. Movies like this—an ambitious hybrid, a long, true-to-life space oddity—just weren’t made anymore.
Despite its anachronism in the marketplace, The Right Stuff was made, and needed to be made exactly when it was to accomplish its rich ambiguity. For all of its satire and frank undressing of the American government’s motivations in the space race, The Right Stuff is peculiarly patriotic. By taking a familiar deck of cards and dealing an eclectic hand of jokers, jacks, and aces, director Philip Kaufman presents an inside story of American military history that even a pinko could love. It’s the early days of the cold war recounted from the latter days of the cold war, late enough to allow for cool reflection but not safe enough to render it a cozy matter of ideology.
Beginning with Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier in 1947 and concluding with Gordo Cooper’s orbital space flight in 1963, The Right Stuff recounts the remarkable advances in air and space travel over 16 crucial years. After Yeager’s historic flight, an Air Force commander prevents a witness from notifying the press for reasons of “national security.” When the man asks who we’re keeping secrets from, the commander responds, “well, maybe the Russians.” The exasperated response: “The Russians? They’re our allies.” While the opinion of Russians quickly evolves during the course of the film, Kaufman avoids getting into the Russian question too deeply, and this feels right. Only Kaufman’s politicians grandstand about commies, while the test pilots that dominate the film hardly need red scare tactics to motivate their pursuits. Their courage, hinted at by references to their “right stuff,” is elevated beyond nationalism to something of a mystical calling, mobilized occasionally for political purposes but otherwise independent.
Kaufman’s screenplay abstracts Tom Wolfe’s best metaphors and incorporates his juiciest anecdotes, and even strives to emulate Wolfe’s cluttered, rhythmic style. But Kaufman creates a singular cinematic work by introducing various distinct film genres to depict his characters and establish themes. He switches genres abruptly and revels in moments of crossover. Western gives way to slapstick comedy, which is replaced by science fiction, which becomes a family drama, which is invaded by broad satire. Though occasionally reminiscent of a silly symphony, the strategy mostly succeeds in using recognizable film language to establish separate points of view; though stylized, the clashing and blending of personalities rings true.
The film begins with a ghost story about the demon that lives at the sound barrier, and proceeds with a 30-minute prologue: Yeager’s conquering of that demon, told as a John Ford western. Sam Shepard’s gloss on Henry Fonda is both eerie and appropriate—Yeager’s persona and milieu merit the evocation. The California desert surrounding Edwards Air Force Base remains a frontier of both literal and metaphorical import, at least until Yeager’s exploits are finally made known and others converge to replace him at the top of the pyramid. But even as test pilots flood the area during the Fifties and suburban homes spring from the sandy soil, Yeager’s favorite drinking hole, called Pancho’s Happy Bottom Rider’s Club, keeps the western alive. When NASA suits (Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum) arrive at Pancho’s to recruit for the space program—an incident wholly invented by Kaufman—the western saloon set is invaded by a borscht belt routine. Not only does it play well, with Shearer declining whiskey and asking for “Coke…in a clean glass” from a barkeep played by the actual Chuck Yeager, the scene permanently alters the order of things and shifts focus—ours and the pilots—to space. Elemental cowboy concerns of earth and air are replaced by the abstract academic conjectures of scientists. Chuck Yeager doesn’t fit the profile of an astronaut—they’re only looking for college graduates.
Gordo Cooper rides into the picture in a convertible, pretty wife at his side and a rock’n roll record on the radio bragging, “I’ve got a rocket in my pocket.” Through the wounded, jaded eyes of his wife Judy (Pamela Reed), Cooper (played with relish by a young Dennis Quaid) comes off as selfish, boyish, and irresistible. He’s Air Force, like Yeager, but he’s Fifties flash with nothing to show for it. When Shearer’s NASA recruiter admits they’re looking for “the best pilots we can get,” Cooper’s as good as hired. The U.S. space program, developed for the sake of both science and public relations, conducted the search for its first astronauts as a bad-ass casting call. Kaufman depicts NASA’s physical and psychological evaluation process as a funhouse of fraternal hazing, with the most dogged and appealing ruffians rising to the top.
After watching them grunt and groan through auditions, the magnificent seven are formally introduced at a rousing press conference. With this simple re-enactment of a widely seen live event, Kaufman distinguishes the individual astronauts from the propagandist hubbub surrounding them, even as they front for it. Some believe in the bullshit more than others, but it’s clear that they’re all playing along. No one needs to tell them that they haven’t done anything yet, but they’re learning to behave like they have until they actually do. Which isn’t lying, it’s just putting the cock before the bull, which is as American as Glenn’s apple pie grin.
What’s thrilling about this scene—and about much of the movie that follows—is its spectacle of hungry, unknown actors portraying hungry, unknown pilots eager for attention and gradually proving themselves worthy of it. Among the actors, Scott Glenn had the most experience (strong supporting roles in Urban Cowboy and Personal Best), and he projects this in his performance, playing Alan Shepard as a more mature man best fit to be the first in space. Dennis Quaid had been seen in Breaking Away, but this was his breakout performance, his Gordo Cooper finally proving worthy of all his bluster. Ed Harris’s performance remains a marvel, as resistant to revealing a darker side as the future Senator himself. By refusing to mock his can-do character, Harris makes Glenn’s eventual acceptance into the group feel plausible.
Fred Ward, as Gus Grissom, may have been the best cast. A short, foul-mouthed rumbler grumbler that seems to have wandered in from a Sam Fuller potboiler, Ward is the audience’s surprise surrogate. He’s in over his head, he’s moody, he’s insecure, he works hard, and he’s smarter than he lets on. He’s the mutt of the group, willing to be ridiculed for the sake of acceptance. When he’s implicitly punished for botching the reclamation of his space pod after his flight, he lets loose—privately, of course, commiserating in his motel room with his equally maligned wife (Veronica Cartwright)—the first and only time that we witness a test pilot expressing honest emotions. Ward’s showstopping Stanley Kowalski scene finally lets some air out of the “right stuff” mythos.
With the first four in space—Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, and Cooper—politely taking turns atop the narrative’s second half, another genre emerges: the socialist buddy picture. Though functioning as both suicide volunteers and poster boys for the American fight against communist advancement, the astronauts realize their negotiating power by forming an alliance, and they press for improved working conditions. They unionize. Whenever NASA or some white shirt or the Vice President of the United States tries to strong-arm one of them, they threaten to walk out or notify the press, and they win. Always working class, Kaufman’s military men are uniquely realized Workers. Only when Kaufman’s convinced us that he’s on their side, and not on the side of bureaucrats and corrupt politicians, does he start piping in Bill Conti’s goose-pimpling score to encourage us to root for their success. He goes one step further than asking us to care for characters with whom we identify: he’s asking us to care for the collective bond they’ve formed, their way of the samurai, their all for one and one for all, their socialist democratic idealism.
Kaufman’s bad guys aren’t who you’d expect. Russians are largely unknown, unpictured, and beside the point. The most demonized figure in The Right Stuff, by a country mile, is Lyndon Johnson. Played with cartoonish panache by British character actor Donald Moffat, Johnson mugs and squawks in his periodic cameos, manipulating and patronizing everyone he meets and scoring for his home state a new NASA complex in Houston. Kaufman is riffing on well-connected dots from Wolfe’s reportage, as well as having a little fun with Johnson’s reputation for old-school bullying and sulking. But since he’s the only major political figure characterized at any length, his appearances eventually give an impression of an odd fetish at play. No less strange is Kaufman’s representation of a secondary villain, the media. Portrayed by an actual comedia dell’arte troupe of seven men (mirror mirror), the reporters are always shown scrambling and crawling over one another to ask questions and take pictures. They’ve scurried over from La Dolce vita as cinematic shorthand, chattering bug noises and all. Finally, none of our heroes has much patience for the German physicists and technicians that made their remarkable achievements possible. Kaufman gives them baroque accents and stilted postures straight out of Young Frankenstein and can’t help but have their pronunciations and pomposity conflict with Lyndon Johnson’s: “A pot? A what? Oh, a pod…A jimp? What’s a jimp? Oh, a chimp…”.
What a long, strange film it is. John Glenn’s orbital voyage features aboriginal astronomers that send fire particles into Perth’s night sky, and Kaufman (again, working well outside of Wolfe’s text) implies that the particles reach space and dance around Glenn’s space pod. After Glenn’s miraculous flame-engulfed return to earth, we’re cruising past the three-hour mark. Outside of the necessarily unhurried Yeager prologue, the film moves rather briskly for its length…until Kaufman parks the astronauts in the Houston Astrodome to endure VP Johnson’s Texas-sized cookout. And the seven just sit, not really knowing why they’re there. And we don’t really know why they’re there. They talk to oil tycoon buffoons and they talk to the press, they eat pork from paper plates and place their drinks on the floor. Meanwhile, the Chuck Yeager subplot returns, and the film switches back and forth between the Astrodome and Yeager’s solitary pursuit of an obscure Russian altitude record. As Yeager reaches his pinnacle, seemingly within reach of a stratosphere denied him, the astronauts are treated to an iconic burlesque by Sally Rand, her giant white feathered wings teasingly obscuring her naked body. During her dance, the seven men take a moment to look at one another and reflect. Yeager comes crashing down, barely escaping with his life. This is our crescendo. This is what we’ve been building to. Not the milestone space voyages or the parades, but these two American male identities epitomized by these otherwise banal scenes. In the Astrodome is the fraternity, the team, a group of men who enjoy one another’s company and delight in working together. And walking stoically across the California desert with his charred helmet in hand is the proud, lonely individual, satisfied to keep pushing himself faster and farther regardless of whether or not anyone else cares.
I actually don’t care much for either of those identities in their common usage and abusage, and I don’t have much patience for male personalities uninfiltrated by strains coded feminine. Tom Wolfe dedicates large portions of his book to the difficult lives of test pilots’ wives, and Kaufman certainly keeps them in the picture, but his film concentrates on the makeup of “the stuff,” which, though comprised of many things, contains no estrogen. (Kaufman balances things out somewhat with his next film adaptation, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which female characters are stronger and more sympathetic than they are in the novel.) By investigating masculinity through the story of the emerging U.S. space program, Kaufman conflates American male identity with a deeper American character. It sounds implausible, but he’s got something there. We’re individually free, but we also belong to each other. We’re independent of one another, but we also form a democratic union. This isn’t political propaganda: Kaufman carefully avoids this by liberating his heroes—thematically, at least—from their true function as pretty faces fronting for the military industrial complex. But I guess, for all of its weirdness, The Right Stuff is a civics lesson after all. And it gets to me every time. Go, hot dog, go.