The Right Stuff

November 29, 2010

Whenever anybody asks John Glenn (movie-version) about his preparedness to go into space, or about the readiness of NASA’s astronaut program in general, he can be counted on to respond with a gung-ho “One-hundred percent!”

The Right Stuff, which tells the story of Glenn and the other Mercury astronauts—America’s first—does not itself rate quite that 100. But it’s so big and spirited that you tend to forget about its weaknesses; you just go with the jaunty, epic flow.

For an epic, The Right Stuff is surprisingly loose and informal. There’s no sense of history being carved in granite here, no stuffy recounting of facts.

Instead, writer-director Philip Kaufman (he made The Wanderers and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers) gives us a hip, warts-and-all tour of the astronauts’ lives, on and off the launching pad.

The film covers nearly 20 years, from Chuck Yeagar’s thrilling 1947 sound-barrier-breaking flight to the final Mercury mission in the mid-’60s. We see the hurried, hectic development of the space program in the 1950s (under the shadow of Sputnik), the painstaking (and painful) selection of seven pilots good enough to become men in space, and the stop-and-go growth of NASA. What emerges is a portrait of a program held together less by military spit-and-polish than by old-fashioned guts and grit.

For example, in one of the film’s high points, Alan Shepard sits atop his rocket, waiting to become the first American in space. As technical malfunctions delay the 15-minute flight for a few hours, Shepard realizes that the four cups of coffee he drank that morning are putting pressure on the old bladder; the space suit isn’t equipped to accommodate this particular contingency. Sitting, then, on the brink of immortality, with the eyes of the world upon him, he can think only of dampening his space suit and gaining relief.

Kaufman plays this scene for comedy, as he does much of the movie, but he’s not out to ridicule or debunk the spacemen. After all, Shepard’s achievement is somehow even more impressive when you realize he was flying through the atmosphere with a little of the wrong stuff in his space suit.

And, for all the film’s jokiness, Kaufman doesn’t lose sight of the grandeur and allure of flying faster and farther than any person has ever gone.

There are lovely, poetic touches: During the first American orbital flight, John Glenn’s capsule is surrounded by some mysterious space particles—”just like fireflies,” as he says—and they seem to be protecting and guiding his capsule. What makes the scene especially poignant is the fact that there has been a serious malfunction with Glenn’s re-entry shield—and he doesn’t know it yet. As he describes the beauty of space, he may also be talking about his own grave.

The actors playing Shepard and Glenn are letter-perfect. Scott Glenn is impressively calm and collected as Shepard (his safety valve is doing a Jose Jimenez imitation). Ed Harris nails down John Glenn’s upwardly mobile smoothness without demeaning Mr. Clean Marine’s gumption.

Glenn sometimes is a figure of unmalicious fun, as during his slick, savvy handling of the press conference that introduces the Mercury astronauts to the world But when he tells his wife about how important it is for America to beat the Russians for control of outer space, Harris plays Glenn not as a bull-headed flag-waver, but as a man with an unshakable, almost childlike belief that his country must be the best: It’s that simple.

Grinning Dennis Quaid does good work as the zany, cocky Gordon Cooper, and Fred Ward all but steals the film as Gus Grissom, a character who may have had just one brief moment when the Right Stuff failed him—and who can never forget it. Ward instills good ol’ boy Grissom with a great dignity; it’s one of those performances in which the actor seems to disappear in his role.

The soul of The Right Stuff resides with Chuck Yeager, the pilot who didn’t become an astronaut because he didn’t fit NASA’s ideal profile. As portrayed by playwright Sam Shepard, Yeager is a figure of almost mystical determination and stillness. He doesn’t appear in the movie much after the first 40 minutes, but his presence hangs over the entire 193-minute running time.

Yeager is shown to be the kind of guy who, about to climb into an experimental, death-tempting jet, will turn to his crew chief and matter-of-factly ask, “You got a stick of Beeman’s?” That’s the right stuff.

First published in the Herald, October 20, 1983

This is my first review for the Herald; it ran the same week as a piece on Under Fire. I’ll take it as a way to debut. In terms of measuring how long ago that was, I’m kind of amazed I didn’t feel the need to define Jose Jimenez or Beeman’s.