• Sam Shepard and Barbara Hershey in 'The Right Stuff'. (SBS Movies)Source: SBS Movies
In his stirring account of the early US space program, Philip Kaufman looked at American heroes and saw flawed men asked to do the impossible.
Travis Johnson

27 Mar 2018 - 9:14 AM  UPDATED 27 Mar 2018 - 9:15 AM

The Right Stuff is your Friday night movie on SBS Australia (see below for details).

Not only do they not make ‘em like The Right Stuff anymore, they didn’t really make ‘em like that when they made it. Released theatrically in 1983 Philip Kaufman’s film, an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s factual book of the same name, was coolly received. An account of the nascent US space program of the early 1960s focused on the Mercury Seven – the first seven astronauts drawn from the various branches of the US military – could have been, and perhaps was expected to be, an exercise in unironic, flag-waving patriotism. Instead, it was an anomaly – a lengthy, sprawling historical film with no singular protagonist, no onscreen antagonist, a meandering plot, an ambiguous climax. 

Even more damningly Kaufman, typically iconoclastic, refused to lionise the Mercury Seven. The director, one of the New Hollywood vanguard, displayed a mistrust of entrenched power systems in many of his films – his last two features were 1978’s paranoid classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and 1979’s anti-authoritarian tale of New York street gangs, The Wanderers. Where others saw heroes, Kaufman saw extraordinary but flawed men. As portrayed by Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Lance Henriksen, Scott Paulin and Charles Frank, the Seven are bold, committed, courageous guys at the top of their game – but they’re also cocksure and arrogant (Quaid’s Gordo Cooper), wracked with self-doubt (Ward’s Gus Grissom), casually racist (Glenn’s Alan Shepard), or just too wrapped up in their own gung-ho patriotism  to be easily bearable (Harris’s John Glenn). 

Audiences stayed away – Americans in the first term of the Reagan presidency wanted uncomplicated, unambiguous heroes to cheer for, and an identifiable bad guy to boo. The Right Stuff is rooted in the Cold War – news of the USSR’s Sputnik launch prompts the US to kick their space program into gear, dispatching Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum, of all people, to round up pilots with the titular “right stuff” –  but the film takes a dim view of blind jingoism. While it never drifts completely into the comedy lane, it certainly takes no small amount of joy in pointing out the more farcical elements of the US military-industrial complex. For our heroes, being flung into space on top of thousands of pounds of exploding rocket fuel is only part of the job – they also have to contend with endless rounds of bizarre physical tests and conditioning, not to mention suddenly having to deal with being the most famous men in the world and all the press attention that entails.

For some that’s a bonus. For the cocky, grinning Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid), a hound dog with a flat top and a long-suffering wife (Pamela Reed), the spotlight is part of the appeal – what’s the point of being the best of the best if the world doesn’t know it? For others, the pressure is nigh-unbearable; when, after splashdown, the hatch blows on his capsule, sending the expensive craft to the bottom of the ocean, Fred Ward’s Gus Grissom all but cracks when it is suspected that he panicked and blew the explosive bolts himself. It’s not death that these guys fear, but failure – public failure, in particular. After all, if you die in a crash you won’t know about it, but if you screw up and come home alive…

"The film takes a dim view of blind jingoism"

For all that, Kaufman doesn’t ridicule his characters; rather he humanises them, and it’s the marriage of the mythic and the mundane that makes The Right Stuff really spark. From its opening voice over somberly intoning “There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die…” to the iconic shot of the Mercury Seven, in flight suits and helmets, striding towards the camera (a shot homaged and parodied in everything from The Simpsons to Community), the film trucks in mythic imagery and tone. Kaufman even occasionally nods to the supernatural; in one sequence, partially set at Australia’s Woomera Tracking Station, the film alludes to the possibility of an Indigenous Australian ceremony somehow influencing John Glenn’s orbit over Australia. To his credit, Kaufman shot the sequence in Australia, and cast David Gulpilil as one of the locals.

There is, however, one character who remains firmly rooted in the mythic. As played by the late Sam Shepard, test pilot Chuck Yeager is presented as a wholly romantic figure. He’s the last cowboy, riding his horse across the high desert of California before jumping into the X-1 experimental airplane to break the sound barrier for the first time, coming home to dance with his wife (Barbara Hershey) and barely acknowledging the incredible magnitude of the feat he just accomplished. Yaeger is the first of the pilots we meet in the film and, in a very real way, he’s the Platonic ideal of a test pilot, the purer breed that all the others aspire to be: fearless, selfless, confident, modest, masculine.

Tellingly, though, Yeager isn't selected for The Mercury Seven. The plot reason for this is given in a throwaway line, but what does it mean on a thematic level? If the fearless Yeager, who in the film’s opening act sets an airspeed record while concealing broken ribs, doesn’t have “the right stuff”, then what is this nebulous “stuff”? 

Well, if it’s not fearlessness, then perhaps it’s fear. If it’s not raw heroism, perhaps it’s directed self-interest. If it’s not the myth, perhaps its simply the men. The seven men at the heart of Kaufman’s film are not flawless demigods, but human beings with all the foibles that entails, who do the impossible in spite of, and occasional because of, their raft of failings. Being less than perfect and achieving greatness anyway – that’s the right stuff.  

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Watch 'The Right Stuff'


SBS, Friday 30 April, 9.40pm
Please note the film will not be available for catch-up viewing at SBS On Demand