The Right Stuff is a 200-minute history lesson about America’s space program. It is expensive, exasperating, exhausting, exhilarating, overblown, overproduced, sometimes excruciatingly stuffy, often exciting, and always cinematic.
It is entirely too long (what it needs more than anything else is a pair of scissors) and so filled with portentous sound effects, arty camera angles, and holy reverence that it might just as easily be a movie about the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Writer-director Philip Kaufman has always made messy movies. This one is no exception. How could it be otherwise?
From beginning to end, it bites off more than it is possible to digest. It tries to tell all seven stories of all seven astronauts in the original Mercury space program, starting even before their involvement – back in 1947, to be exact, when Chuck Yeager became the first man to break the sound barrier in the X-I rocket aircraft.
In the thirty-odd years that comprise the rest of the movie, Kaufman cuts back and forth, from the astronauts who became celebrity heroes, to Yeager (played with wild stoicism by poker-faced Sam Shepard), who kept breaking new speed records without fanfare.
The point of the movie seems to be that test pilots like Yeager, who did the dangerous dirty work without fame and adulation, are the real heroes with the real “right stuff,” and the astronauts were merely doing the same thing any monkey could do.
This thesis does not work because the astronauts are so much more lively and interesting than the sour, petulant Yeager that you don’t care anyway.
Despite all the “God, America and apple pie” they were supposed to represent, the film shows the astronauts as hell-raising heavy drinkers with an eye for the girls, and there’s even a group masturbation scene . . .
For domestic drama, there’s an extraordinary file of information: Alan Shepard had to urinate in his spacesuit, and Gus Grissom’s wife came unhinged when, following Grissom’s capsule malfunction on his solo launch, he was given the short end of the stick and she did not get to meet Jackie Kennedy as planned.
And for irreverent political sass, we get a picture of Lyndon B. Johnson that is not far removed from an orang-utan wearing a Stetson.
The movie drones on – sometimes soaring, sometimes wafting – through the race with Russia, the embarrassment over Sputnik, the physical fitness regimens and punishing endurance tests, the construction of NASA’s new space centre in Houston, the ticker-tape parades, the new speed records, and John Glenn’s triumphal earth orbit.
Lyndon B Johnson
Mary Jo Deschanel