As JFK proclaims during Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, space exploration was the latest example of an American desire for progress and innovation, another shining demonstration of the country’s desire to lead rather than follow. Yet despite this “Upward-ho!” sentiment, the men and women of Kaufman’s film (adapted by the director from Tom Wolfe’s best seller) are primarily concerned with the thrill of the chase. In this dynamic three-hour history lesson, the larger-than-life pursuits of timeless glory and technological advancement are inextricably allied with the day-to-day quests for familial stability and personal fulfillment. Such lofty goals are eagerly sought by the nation’s seven inaugural space jockeys, a motley crew of daredevils who share a testosterone-propelled obsession with pushing themselves to their physical and psychological limits. The seven men chosen to spearhead the program—Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), John Glenn (Ed Harris), Leroy “Hot Dog” Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward), Donald Slayton (Scott Paulin), Malcolm Carpenter (Charles Frank) and Walter Schirra (Lance Henriksen)—are cast as atypical heroes, guys who stumbled into a profession that offered fame, fortune and celebrity while requiring only the piloting skills of a well-trained monkey (chimps being the astronauts’ fiercest competition). Kaufman blends such irony with humor (most memorably a scene involving Scott Glenn’s need to relieve himself shortly before blast-off) and poignancy (the sketchy rendering of a military wife’s struggles) in his portrayal of these cocky and somewhat foolhardy flyboys. The director’s wholehearted admiration, however, is reserved for ace test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), a chiseled-in-stone hero who, because of a shortsighted stipulation that required all prospective astronauts to possess college degrees, never got the chance to frolic among the stars. Determined to continually “punch a hole in the sky,” Yeager was a thorny risk-taker whose hunger for testing himself was never fully satiated, and the film’s exhilaration over the dawning space program’s success is somewhat tempered by its allegiance to this (then-unsung) pioneer. Sheppard’s smiles always seem in danger of morphing into grimaces, and his scenes with wife Glennis (a somber Barbara Hershey) reveal the hidden undercurrents of regret, disappointment and insecurity that fueled Yeager’s—as well as many of the astronauts’—devil-may-care antics. The titular “stuff” is shown to be a combination of courage, determination, and recklessness, but, as Kaufman’s stirring epic reminds us, an equally important motivation for greatness is the fear of being merely second best.
Originally released as a "flipper" disc, Warner Bros.'s new two-disc special edition of The Right Stuff features the entire film on one disc (and on one side), and the results are smashing. Colors are rendered vibrantly, flesh tones never fluctuate, and edge enhancement is nowhere to be found. Although the film is, for the most part, quite brightly lit, blacks are deep and shadow delineation is acceptably sharp. Occasional nicks and scratches surface from time to time (especially during the somewhat dated special effects shots), but the overall clarity and image quality of this new transfer makes such slight deficiencies inconsequential. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is an unqualified winner, with incredible dimensionality that brings every thunderous crowd ovation for the astronauts and every successful (and doomed) launch attempt reverberate with room-shaking force. Panning and imaging effects are subtle but used to great effect, and dialogue is crystal clear.
With the film occupying the first disc, all supplemental material is found on disc two. Two commentary tracks (the first featuring Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Jeff Goldblum, Dennis Quaid, Veronica Cartwright and Barbara Hershey, and the second featuring writer/director Philip Kaufman, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) can be heard while watching a selection of scenes from the film in a manner similar to Warner's recent True Romance special edition. Given the brief amount of time each participant is given to speak, the tracks are a hit-and-miss affair, but the commentaries' brevity is welcome given this lengthy film's potential for rambling commentary discussions.
More enlightening are the disc's four documentaries, the best of which is John Glenn: American Hero, an hour and a half documentary (from PBS) that details the life and achievements of the famed astronaut. This feature-length doc follows Glenn from his youth to his highly publicized return to space at seventy-seven, and offers up a convincing portrait of Glenn as one of this country's authentic heroes. "Realizing the Right Stuff" and "T-20 Years and Counting" are two halves of a comprehensive whole that cover the story's journey from Wolfe novel to Kaufman film, detailing how the film was adapted for the screen, the difficulties encountered in creating the film's various effects shots, and each cast member's fond recollections of working on the project. "The Real Men of The Right Stuff", featuring interview and archival footage, concentrates on the film's real-life counterparts, and offers us the delightful opportunity to hear Yeager discuss those heady days of thrill-seeking. Thirteen deleted scenes prove that the film's two editors earned their salaries, and an interactive timeline provides viewers with brief text or video clips regarding important dates in space travel. The film's theatrical trailer is also included.
Unjustly labeled a failure after its disappointing box office run, The Right Stuff's tarnished reputation can only benefit from Warner's sparkling new two-disc special edition.