Philip Kaufman’s epic adaptation of the famous Tom Wolfe book about test pilots and the Mercury astronauts is like two movies rolled into one. The first movie, which features Sam Shepard (looking very much like an American icon) as the most famous test pilot of all, Chuck Yeager, establishes the test pilots as an almost super-human breed. The portions of the movie that feature Yeager and his compatriots (who are sometimes competitors) are intentionally mythic and mysterious in tone. Even the most simple dialogue – such as when Yeager, before each flight, asks his buddy for a “stick of Beeman’s” – is spoken as if the words mean much more than those which appeared on the script.
The second movie, which focuses on the selection of the Mercury astronauts and their initial flights, is much lighter in tone. The astronauts are confident to the point of being arrogant, and at the beginning are presented by Kaufman in a less heroic light than the test pilots, who operate well out of the public eye and know that every flight could be their last. There’s a lot of humor in the part of the movie where the prospective astronauts are being run through a battery of tests to determine their mettle, and that humor is underscored by the fact that many of the tests plainly have very little to do with anything other than making them as uncomfortable as possible.
Over the length of the movie, the heroic nature of the astronauts develops, and near the end there is a scene when Yeager defends them in a conversation with his colleagues. But even with that, you get the sense that Kaufman wants us to leave the theater thinking that Chuck Yeager was a greater hero than any of the original 7 – Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Slaton, Cooper, Carpenter and Schirra.
The performances are great, particularly Shepard as Yeager, Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, and Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper. At first, the Mercury 7 don’t have a lot of use for each other (especially Shepard and Glenn, who are very different in demeanor and attitude), but eventually the 7 develop a bond and a sense of respect for each other that goes well beyond mere friendship.
If I recall correctly, “The Right Stuff” was not a huge hit at the box office, which is a shame. It is a great American story, and a great adventure story. #48, “The Right Stuff.”