Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Wild Blue Yonder

Film: The Right Stuff
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

You watch enough films, you get jaded. Things start to get predictable when you’ve seen the same plot a couple of dozen times. This is even truer in situations in which the film in question is based on reality. The Right Stuff is very much based on reality, covering the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union through the 1950s and 1960s. If you don’t know your history, it’s a riveting tale filled with drama, danger, and excitement. If you do know your history…well, it’s really the same thing. Lots of drama, lots of danger, lots of excitement.

It’s difficult for me to remember sometimes that not everyone knows what I know, or grew up when I did. I remember the tail end of the space race and the origin of the space shuttle missions. Kids from my generation knew about astronauts and the push into space. So, since I grew up with it, it can be difficult to realize that there are plenty of people who don’t know the history, didn’t grow up with it, and never lived in a world where it was important.

The Right Stuff is the story of the seven Mercury astronauts, their wives, and the men who worked in the space program. We don’t start with Mercury, though. Instead, the film begins in the 1950s with the attempts to break the sound barrier, something that, like the four-minute mile, many experts said was impossible. So, for the first part of the film, we are dealing primarily with the great Chuck Yeager (played here by Sam Shepard).

If you’re unclear of the history and don’t know if the sound barrier was ever broken, you can rest easy. It’s broken in the film in the first half hour, and Yeager is the man who does it. We stay here, in the middle of the desert at Edwards Air Force Base, as pilots push the envelope further and further, with Yeager being the man to get airplanes past mach 2.5.

Everything changes when the Russians put Sputnik into orbit in the late 1950s. At this point, we switch over to the seven Mercury astronauts. We start with a larger group, and they are slowly pared down to the seven who made the cut—the seven with “the right stuff.” The seven are Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen). While we spend some time with all seven, the primary characters in the film are Shepard, Glenn, Cooper, and Grissom. Rounding out the cast as government agents are Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum.

This is essentially the entire movie. The seven men train, do a number of press tours, and risk their lives as they get closer and closer to taking a craft into space. While they quarrel at times—usually about some of the astronauts taking their new-found fame as an opportunity for extra-curricular activities—the seven also bond completely so that they can present a united front to the government and scientists.

Of the seven, John Glenn comes off as the true boy scout and as the aggressor when it comes to keeping the squeaky clean image of the Mercury astronauts. Cooper is depicted as the real player, and also as the one with the most significant marital problems.

What I find the most interesting is that the film does not give short shrift to the wives of the astronauts. There are several scenes where the women express their frustration and their worries as their husbands risk their lives essentially strapped to the front end of a missile. Most poignant is the relationship between Glenn and his wife, Annie (Mary Jo Deschanel). Annie suffers from a significant stutter, even when speaking with her husband, and is thus understandably not willing to go on national television. Glenn risks his own career to support her in that decision. It’s a sweet moment, made sweeter by the unification of the other six astronauts behind Glenn’s stand.

The most iconic moment of the film belongs not to the astronauts, but to Yeager. While Yeager’s fame as the first man to break the sound barrier faded as soon as the Mercury program began, he was left behind as unacceptable for the program due to his lack of a college education. It’s evident from the portrayal here that while Yeager puts on a front of not caring, he truly wishes to be flying the latest and greatest, those being the Mercury rockets. Near the end of the film, he takes an experimental plane as high as he can, pushing it to leave Earth’s atmosphere, only to fall back and crash at the end. There is no better moment in the film than Yeager walking stoically away from the wreck, his face half burned, the wreckage of a hugely expensive aircraft augered in behind him.

I knew the history, or at least some of it, going in. It doesn’t matter when the story is this compelling and the movie is this well acted.

Why to watch The Right Stuff: Fact-based true tales of real American heroes.
Why not to watch: If you know your history, you know how it ends.


  1. I was the complete opposite to you: I didn't know any of the history watching this, so found myself several times thinking 'Oh no, he's not going to make it!'

    I think this deserves to be held in the same esteem as Apollo 13; it is a great telling of this period of history, and captures all aspects of it, including the less enjoyable parts (the press). I too liked the attention given to the wives, who occupied a lonely place between their husbands and the press: they watched along with everyone else, but shared their husband's fears.

    1. I have to admit, when I saw the first few words of your comment, I thought, "Oh, no! How can she not like this?"

      I love this movie from start to finish, and I agree that it's in the same class as Apollo 13 and for the same reasons. This is science and exploration made thrilling, the sort of thing we should show kids to get them involved in STEM careers.

      If there's one lesson to take away from it, it's that Chuck Yeager was--probably still is--made of brass and sheetrock.