The Right Stuff: Touching the Sky

HOW THE FUTURE BEGAN.

I have never understood those people who have no interest in space. That’s like showing no interest in the questions that have occupied scientists and philosophers ever since mankind grew a brain large enough to use it for something other than gathering food. This is a film that portrays people who raise their head, look into the sky and reach out to touch it. I can truly sympathize.

Strangely enough, the film was a box-office flop; one explanation could have been that astronaut John Glenn was a veteran Senator at the premiere of the film and some people thought it was just a propaganda tool meant to help him in the upcoming presidential elections.

Based on Tom Wolfe’s meticulously researched novel about the birth of the space programme in the U.S., the film begins in 1947 with the test pilots working in the desert at what is now known as Edwards Air Force Base. Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) becomes the man who first breaks the sound barrier. These pilots live dangerous lives, and when President Eisenhower decides that the fledgling space project Mercury needs humans, not monkeys, piloting the capsule that will take the first American into space, Edwards is the place to look for candidates. Yeager is known as the best pilot there ever was, but he was immediately rejected because of his lack of a college degree. Seven pilots were eventually chosen and presented to the press as heroes. As the years went by, the failures piled up in the shape of crashing rockets and the Soviets kept beating the U.S. at the game.

But there was eventually progress and in 1961 Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), one of the Mercury 7, became the first American in space. A year earlier, President Kennedy had stated an ambitious goal to put a man on the moon. Mercury was no longer a laughing stock. All the while, Chuck Yeager continued as a test pilot, proving every day in his own way how no man was ever more qualified to become an astronaut than him.

Representing man’s yearning to push the limit
That part of the movie, using Yeager’s story as a frame, is what makes it special. He truly represents man’s yearning to push the limit, to go where no one has gone before, to chase the demon that people said lived at the sound barrier before it was broken. There is a powerful sequence near the end where Yeager takes an NF-104 to the extreme altitude of 108,000 feet and gets a glimpse of space before he exhausts the plane to the degree that it falls out of the sky. Equally memorable (and stunningly beautiful) is John Glenn’s (Ed Harris) 1962 orbit of Earth, where he experienced sunrise and sunset in a few hours as well as an odd light phenomenon. The film moves from the desert to Washington offices to the space, but cinematographer Caleb Deschanel keeps it believable all the time, no doubt aided by Wolfe’s research that lies in the background.

Bill Conti’s music score has a powerful impact and the cast is full of familiar faces; they’re all great, even if no one delivers an outstanding performance. The script often has a good sense of humor (usually when Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer show up), but its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson is a tad too comical. It is nevertheless a compelling study of seven men who were not perfect, not necessarily heroes, but achieved great things as long as they stayed together.

It’s a long movie and definitely not for those who feel that space has no room in their lives. But The Right Stuff tells its story vividly, emotionally and intelligently and knows how to appreciate those who will do their best to touch the sky, even if their tool is just a plane, not a rocket.

The Right Stuff 1983-U.S. 193 min. Color. Produced by Robert Chartoff, Irwin Winkler. Written and directed by Philip Kaufman. Novel: Tom Wolfe. Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel. Music: Bill Conti. Editing: Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Tom Rolf, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart. Cast: Sam Shepard (Chuck Yeager), Scott Glenn (Alan Shepard), Ed Harris (John Glenn), Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey… Veronica Cartwright, Harry Shearer, Jeff Goldblum, Lance Henriksen.

Trivia: William Goldman wrote one draft of the script, but disagreed with Kaufman’s vision and walked out; the final script only credits Kaufman. The real Chuck Yeager makes an appearance in a bar scene.

Oscars: Best Original Score, Film Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing.

Quote: “There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.” (Levon Helm as the narrator)

Last word: “Many of the astronauts wanted to be portrayed as completely infallible. I always felt that John Glenn could have been president if he’d had more Ed Harris in him. (laughs) More of that sort of self-mocking, hipster guy. I think many people wanted the Life Magazine version of the story, although that would have been difficult if we were going to stay faithful to the spirit of Tom Wolfe’s book.” (Kaufman, The Hollywood Interview)

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