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.
- Philip Kaufman
- Philip Kaufman
- Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, Lance Henriksen, Donald Moffat
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