#291 The Right Stuff

(1983, Phillip Kaufman)

“There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, Russia and America were in a race to explore beyond the boundaries of our atmosphere and into outer space. It was a time of great experimentation and wonder, but the efforts to explore space required men with a willingness to put their lives on the line for the advancement of humanity. The Right Stuff is the story of these men, the pioneering astronauts of the Mercury program.

So there isn’t much of a plot to The Right Stuff then. It’s basically a series of events leading up to the completion of the Mercury program and little more. We start in the days of high-speed flight experimentation, when daring pilots pushed to break the sound barrier and go faster than anyone has ever gone before. This then leads into the development of NASA and the recruitment of the seven astronauts who would go on to explore Earth’s orbit.

As someone who is interested in the exploration of space, I was looking forward to this movie. I was curious to see the full story, and waited with anticipation to see how it was handled.

Imagine my disappointment when the movie spends forever getting to the development of NASA, and instead hangs around a bunch of high-speed test pilots who seemingly have no connection to the space program aside from their efforts aiding in the development of rockets. The problem is, it turns these guys into characters, especially Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, and spends a lot of time saying that he was the best pilot EVAH and tries to make us feel sorry for the fact he never got to be an astronaut.

But this ends up feeling like padding. In a three-hour movie. So you can imagine how well that went down with me.

When we do get to the astronauts, The Right Stuff is determined to focus on the personalities and relationships of the astronauts above the technical details of the Mercury program. This is fine, especially as good characters make for better stories than a bunch of technical figures. However, Phillip Kaufman didn’t do a great job of developing these men as real characters. They were all painted as All-American Heroes™, all square jaws and no personalities. Worst of all, he failed to adequately demonstrate that these men had “the right stuff” that made them volunteer for the program. You know, the whole point of the title of the movie.

There are also numerous scenes involving the astronauts’ wives, designed to flesh out these men even more, but these scenes more often than not just got in the way of everything. What’s more, Annie Glenn’s stutter was never explained, leaving us to wonder why she struggled to speak properly; I only understood this because I looked it up online. If you have to do background research on a movie, the movie has failed to communicate properly. Essentially, The Right Stuff spends a lot of time on things that drag the movie and less time on things that actually matter to communicating the events accurately.

It’s not a complete failure, however. Some of the interaction between the astronauts has some genuine comedy, and the portrayal of NASA during this time as a confused organisation that was basically throwing everything at the wall to see what would stick was wonderfully unexpected. No one involved seems to know exactly what they’re doing, and this was nice because I honestly expected them to paint NASA as heroic and intelligent and the beacon of human advancement, but instead we get a bumbling band of scientists who aren’t even sure if their tests on the astronauts are actually helpful.

Also, when the movie does manage to focus on the thing we came to see – the space program – it does a phenomenal job. The space race is portrayed as both tense and slightly silly, and these two conflicting sides end up sticking together quite nicely, with the pompous politics between the US and Russia sitting surprisingly well against the exciting space launches. I was on the edge of my seat before Alan Shepherd went up, despite knowing that he succeeded and came back safely.

Overall, The Right Stuff was interesting to an extent, but part of this may have stemmed from my own personal interest in the space program. When it stuck to its guns and focused on the important events, it did its job very well, but the amount of padding and dragged-out sections bring the entire experience down a little.

Starring Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Barbara Hershey, Lance Henriksen, Veronica Cartwright, Jane Dornacker, Harry Shearer, Jeff Goldblum & Kim Stanley
Written by Tom Wolfe (book) and Philip Kaufman
Produced by Irwin Winkler
Music by Bill Conti
Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel
Edited by Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart & Tom Rolf

Favourite Scene: Alan Shepherd goes into space. Took a while to get there, but at least it paid off.
Scene That Bugged Me: Oh boo hoo poor Chuck Yaeger never got to be an astronaut. Let’s pad out the ending of this three-hour movie with more scenes featuring him.

Watch it if: You’re the Space Core from Portal 2
Avoid it if: You want a dry account of the history of the space program

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Posted on June 25, 2014, in 1980s, Biopic, Drama, Historical and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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