Oscar Vault Monday – The Right Stuff, 1983 (dir. Philip Kaufman)
This was one of those movies that just completely blew me away when I first saw it. Partly because it’s one of those “great American stories” type movies about heroic everymen, but also because it is so visually stunning and packed with great performances. I will say right off that it has a pretty hefty ensemble cast and instead of trying to write about all of the performances, I’m going to focus on the five main men. But I do want to say that the women (specifically, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, Mary Jo Deschanel and Kathy Baker) are all marvelous as they try to support their men, and sometimes try to come to terms with their own fear as their husbands become pioneers in this thing we called The Space Race. I also want to mention that Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer add some much appreciated levity to the film as befuddled NASA recruiters meeting with the various pilots as they try to convince them to join this new program. The Right Stuff was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning four: Sound Effects Editing (won), Best Film Editing (won), Best Original Score (won), Best Sound (won), Best Supporting Actor Sam Shepard, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were The Big Chill, The Dresser, Tender Mercies and winner Terms of Endearment.
1983 was one of those years where the Best Picture race did not line up with the Best Director race. Two films nominated for Best Picture – The Right Stuff and The Big Chill – were not nominated for Best Director. Those two director spots went to Ingmar Bergman and Mike Nichols, whose films Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander) and Silkwood were both not up for Best Picture. I don’t have the exact stats, but basically if your film is up for Best Director but not Best Picture or vice versa, you’re not gonna win.
I’ve always been a fan of space exploration, I guess mostly because I’ve been a fan of sci-fi my whole life, but it’s nice to see a (mostly) non-fiction account of the early days of space flight. It always boggles my mind that there were actually only a few countries that tried to put people in space, and that mostly this was as part of the Cold War. I guess I’ve always just hoped for a world like in Star Trek wherein the nations all unite as humans because we, finally, realize that that one thing binds us closer than all of our differences separate us. But I digress, the shots of outer space in this film are just gorgeous, thanks to the exquisite camerawork of Caleb Deschanel, who lost the Best Cinematography award to Sven Nykvist’s work on Fanny and Alexander.
Before you talk about any of the guys who go on to become NASA’s first astronauts, you have to talk about Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, the ultimate badass. The film begins with Yeager, breaking the sound barrier in 1947 – while suffering from an injury. It would be an understatement to say that Shepard’s Yeager is a tough man, he is that and more. Yeager is not one of the pilots recruited by NASA. If my memory recalls correctly this is because he turns them down – at one point he says that anyone who goes up in space will just be “Spam in a can”. He pops up now and again throughout the film physically, but his stoic presence is felt throughout. In one of the last scenes of the film, Yeager sets a new altitude record at the edge of space while testing the new Lockheed NF-104A hybrid rocket and jet. Basically, he proves that he, too, has the right stuff, he’d just prefer to stick to Earth and airplanes. Though obviously burned, Yeager ejects himself from his jet and confidently walks away, a trail of smoke behind him. I dare you to find a more badass scene, I dare you. Shepard, who is actually a prolific and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in this film. He lost to Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment, who, somewhat ironically, played a retired astronaut.
The rest of the cast of men who have “the right stuff” are, on the outside, kind of your stereotypical high-octane pilots a la Top Gun. Though unlike that film, these characters were based on real men, and thus feel like real men and are complicated like real men. Dennis Quaid, looking damn fine, plays Gordon Cooper who would eventually helm the last American one-man flight into space. While most of the time he is running on all cylinders, occasionally Cooper breaks down, and it is in these tender moments that you see who he really is. There’s one scene between him and Scott Glenn’s Alan Shepard that is filled with the warmest of camaraderie, though at one point they were rivals. It is when we realize what we have in common is always greater than what is different that we shine our brightest.
Speaking of Scott Glenn, he is absolute dynamite as Alan Shepard, short fuse and all. When he is first recruited he’s got the biggest grin on his face, but as the testing of the would-be astronauts begins, we see beyond his tough exterior to a man filled with insecurities and fears, though eventually he rises above them. Shepard ‘s 15-minute sub-orbital flight is met with national acclaim and turns him into a living hero. I love Scott Glenn’s performance because it is laced with this great acerbic humor and, dare I say it?, true grit.
Shepard’s flight is followed by Gus Grissom’s sub-orbital flight, which nearly ended in tragedy as the capsule’s hatch inexplicably jettisons during the ocean recovery and begins to fill with water. Unlike Shepard, Grissom’s return is not hailed with a parade and national acclaim. As his wife (Veronica Cartwright), states, “No ticker-tape parade in New York? No Jackie?” Grissom knows it was the equipment that malfunctioned, not him, but no one seems to care and this causes him much strife. Fred Ward is such an underrated actor and his performance in this film is one of its most electric.
Four-time Academy Award-nominee, Ed Harris plays John Glenn, whose enthusiasm for the program is matched only by his ambitions. His wife (Mary Jo Deschanel) suffers from a crippling stutter, and his almost violent protection of her is one of my favorite things about his character. As the Cold War heats up, NASA’s mission becomes both more urgent and more at risk of being defunded. Eventually, however, Glenn makes his iconic orbit of the Earth and is welcomed back with perhaps the largest hero’s welcome since that of Charles Lindbergh.
Perhaps this film is laced with just a little too much hero-worship for some, but I find their stories awe-inspiring and this film to be a wonderful tribute to these truly great men. It saddens me to think that with all these men managed to accomplish and all that NASA has accomplished since, the American people seem to have forgotten what it was like to reach into space for the first time, what that kind of potential felt like. I guess with the sate of the economy as it is, it’s hard to ask taxpayers to fund space exploration now that it’s not part of our Cold War agenda against the Russians, now that it truly is about exploration and not besting those damn Commies. I only hope we’ll find that fervor again and one day reach beyond.