Monday, July 3, 2017

The Right Stuff

1983's THE RIGHT STUFF is to my eyes an undisputed American classic.  A film that deserves rank with many revered pictures of earlier decades, even vintage Hollywood.  But unlike many of those films, it dares to be critical of its fabled humans, a group of "flyboys" who represent the U. S. of A.  This movie ain't no nationalist propaganda, the sort that might've been seen in the 1940s.   It boldly takes the image of the squeaky clean patriot to task.  To look behind the curtain, but without bringing it down.

The three plus hour film is based on Tom Wolfe's sprawling book, and paring it down must've been daunting.  There's some interesting history behind the screenwriting - William Goldman's script was rejected by director Philip Kaufman for being "too patriotic", and not featuring enough of Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to go supersonic and break the sound barrier.  Yeager was not among the astronauts who would later orbit space.  NASA wanted college grads, part of the image. War hero Yeager was a hot shot Major at Edwards Air Force Base, inspiring the likes of Air Force captains Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), those considered to have the right stuff.  Chuck remained there while the others got the press.

THE RIGHT STUFF follows the astronauts, which included Marine John Glenn (Ed Harris) and Navy man Alan Shepherd (Scott Glenn), who are put through their paces with rigorous, sometimes humiliating (note the enema bag scene) physical tests to confirm their right stuff.  It is during these scenes that the film most obviously reveals its sense of humor, its lighthearted point of view. Much of the film has this tone.   This is not a dark, cynical movie, though many jabs at the media are present -news reporters are shown to be like wolves, scaling fences and the like. Future president LBJ is also hardly shown in a favorable light.   The Space Race against Russia was an anxious time for America, and policymaker and engineer alike are painted somewhat broadly, perhaps accurately.

Where does that leave the astronauts? None are ever shown to be angelic, and that is another reason why this is a great piece of work.  They ARE portrayed as real, flawed, perhaps studies in arrested development who succumb to narcissism, saving face, celebrity, and being juvenile.  But Wolfe and Kaufman perhaps make the point that it is such a rambunctious spirit, albeit pardoxically, that makes our land great, that pushes the boundaries to move forward.  At times the men do exhibit what might be seen as heroism, not just in flight but, as an example, in a refusal to do an LBJ interview.

THE RIGHT STUFF is grand entertainment -epic, sweeping in the grand tradition but never becomes pompous, self-important, or boring. Bill Conti's energetic score is never too much.  It's celebratory and revealing.  A championing of the individual and team spirit alike, though perhaps favoring the former.

And so by film's close, there's Yeager, still out at Edwards, still trying to break records ("that nobody cares about") within the Earth's atmosphere while the golden boys are wined and dined and watch a feathered dancer.  He'll push the new NF-104A up 12,000 feet, seeing the edge of space, only to suffer a scorched blow back down to Earth.  But he makes it, not yet joining those before him in memoriam on that old barroom wall.  He too had the right stuff.
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