For its 30th anniversary, Warner Brothers has just released a fantastic Bluray package of writer/director Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff” (1983). The transfer is absolutely perfect, as is the 5.1 sound mix. The set also includes a separate disc with all kinds of special features, including a terrific “making of” documentary and a one-hour PBS special about astronaut/senator John Glenn.
The best part of the package is of course the film itself. This funny, moving, and very entertaining story of the men who took us into space wasn’t a hit when released (Glenn was running for president at the time and many believe that tainted the film as political). But thanks to television and home video, “The Right Stuff” has found its audience and, more importantly, its proper place as a timeless masterpiece.
Here are five reasons why….
1. Better Than Patriotic: I have read that William Goldman was the first scripter to take a crack at Tom Wolfe’s novel but the director rejected it. Kaufman’s eventual take toned down Goldman’s patriotism and reinserted Wolfe’s framing of the overall story around legendary test pilot Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shepard). I’ve also read that some of the original Mercury 7 astronauts were upset that the film treated NASA engineers and administrators as the story’s antagonists.
Regardless, Kaufman made the absolute right choices. What makes “The Right Stuff” soar is something better than patriotism, it is Americanism– the story of risk-taking and masculine men working as a team but still fighting to be number one. Better still, these men are fighting for the right to hold on to their dignity and individualism in a system that wants to mold them into the symbols the government believes it needs.
This wonderful, perfectly threaded theme culminates in a way that is both memorable and exhilarating when John Glenn (Ed Harris) risks his place in the space program to stand by his wife and against Vice President Lyndon Johnson.
2. Every Scene Is a Gem: There is no place in its 193 minutes where you can tune into “The Right Stuff” and not have your attention immediately captured. Every single scene is produced like a top-notch short film that entertains on its own merits. If you come in late, you might not know what is happening, but you will smile and want to know what is happening. This is a rare trait, even in classic films.
3. The Score: Bill Conti won a no-brainer Oscar for a rousing that score that just like the film is more American than patriotic.
4. Perfect Performances: “The Right Stuff” might not have lit the box office on fire, but it did ensure that relative newcomers Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, and Fred Ward would have long, prosperous careers.
Furthermore, over three-plus hours we meet dozens of marvelous character actors playing dozens of characters, and every performance stands out. What makes the success of so many performances even more amazing is that Kaufman gives most of the supporting roles an off-beat, over-the top quality that is meant to contrast with the down-to-earth normalcy of the pilots and their wives. This risky choice not only works, it lifts the overall film to a level all its own.
5. Sincere Irony: Another way to describe this might be “tone.” Whatever you call it, the story’s perfectly calibrated knife-edge mix of whimsy, humor, mockery, ironic distance, and wit never comes close to devolving into superior smugness. Kaufman is in love with his characters, even those he sets up as antagonists, and that permeates everything. Kaufman is especially in love with the spirit of these men and the country that made it possible to overtake the Soviets on the way to the moon.
The only other example of what I call “sincere irony” working so well is Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in the “Iron Man” films.
The Right Stuff (30th Anniversary Edition) is available at Amazon.com.
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