Here is one of the great shots in American cinema, and it comes in the first five minutes of The Right Stuff, one of the great American epics:
That’s Chuck Yeager on his horse looking at and passing by the X-1, one of the most advanced pieces of transportation equipment man had created up to that point. The rugged individual, the cowboy, and the high-tech instrument of man, together.
That really does crystalize into an image what the Right Stuff actually is, according to the movie and its writer/director Philip Kaufman. It’s the perfect combination of man and machine. But, it’s not just any man. This isn’t a movie about Yuri Gagarin going into space, it’s about the seven Mercury astronauts, and Chuck Yeager. It’s not the collectivist, New Socialist Man, but the individual. The one who has trouble taking orders. The one who’s willing to take no more than his basic pay to hop into the cockpit of the machine that will more than likely take his life when he tries to chase the demon in the skies at Mach 1.
The movie as a whole, though, spends a lot of time implicitly contrasting the government’s efforts to find “the right stuff” with Yeager himself, who obviously has it. Would he have done as well in the tests as the other seven astronauts upon their initial selection? It seems like its safe to say that yes, Yeager would have done just fine.
For a three-hour movie, it’s actually really focused. The story its telling is very large, and it helped trim out what Kaufman considered the fat by relegating the engineers to be, at best, side characters. What gives the movie its epic sweep, though, is the fact that we’re not just thinking of pilots in capsules, but the contrast with Yeager helps, and so does the contrast in experience that their wives go through. Making sure to spend sufficient time with Mrs. Grissom, Mrs. Shepherd, Mrs. Glenn and the rest helps provide the grounding to the story that makes the astronauts themselves more relatable. Even then, though, there isn’t enough time to dig into all sixteen of these characters, so only four of the seven astronauts get any real attention (Grissom, Shepherd, Glenn, and Cooper) while the other three (Slayton, Carpenter, and Schirra) are either secondary characters or exist almost entirely in the background.
Following the eight men from just after the end of World War II through to the end of the Mercury program is a tale that lasts more than a decade and sees massive shifts in how the world worked. The image of Soviet scientist Sergei Korolev projected into flames is a marvelous visual and comes right at the point that the movie moves beyond its prologue of Yeager beating the sound barrier to give the movie context. They are in a race, and they need the best men who can dare nearly certain death. Test pilots, Eisenhower demands, are the only option.
Once the seven are selected, they watch as the German scientist’s in the government’s employ crash one rocket after another, trying again and again to find the right combination of materials and engineering to safely send a man into space. Once it becomes known that administration is moving towards the idea of sending a chimp into space instead of one of these seven men who have trained so hard for so long, they explode. They are the best. They’ve been subjected to endless tests, and they shouldn’t have to play second fiddle to a monkey.
Well, they lose that fight and, in the process, the fight to reach space first against the Soviet Union. Yuri Gagarin gets out there first, and suddenly the American program kicks back into high gear. Alan Shepherd goes first. What follows is the ups and downs of the Mercury missions from Grissom’s blown hatch to Glenn’s fireflies and potential heat shield failure on his third orbit to Cooper’s successful twenty-two orbit flight that marked the end of the program.
The story is told so well, involving so many characters, acted perfectly, and cut so that it never drags even at 192 minutes. It shows the extent of the individual’s achievement in the pursuit of greatness.
We end the movie with two major events: Yeager’s crash and Cooper’s flight. Both represent everything that is right with the two men, the essence of the right stuff. They’re both foolhardy enough to try something so dangerous, and they’re both brave enough to do it coolly and calmly. They are the modern iteration of the cowboy.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4
4 thoughts on “The Right Stuff”
I always loved the juxtaposition of Yeager’s final flight in the movie with the strange Texas ballet/stripper performance and Gordo Cooper’s response to the press questions.
Amidst all the action as Yeager’s flight goes wrong, I always feel it where he looks up through the sky and sees the stars much as the astronauts see them – but not quite, and fading rapidly as his plane stalls, fated never to reach that part of the sky.
Then there’s the scene where Yeager, drinking with his buddies at night at Pancho’s beaten up bar (as usual), wanders away a little among the Joshua Trees and looks up at the Moon that Kennedy has just announced a race for. He then looks back at his drunken pilot buddies, stumbling as they climb aboard a motorbike that falls over, and the look on Sam Shepard’s face in both takes capture so well that he knows one history is ending and another beginning that he will not take part in.
Finally there’s the dialog. By the time I first saw the movie in 1983 I’d probably read Wolfe’s book a dozen times, so I immediately recognised his descriptions placed as dialog into the mouths of the actors. I can’t think of any other movie that did such a thing to the degree this movie did and I’m always amazed that they gave Wolfe no credit specifically for that.
And just think, William Goldman wanted to excise Yeager from the script completely. He’s the whole point.