This was a pretty serious time in American history, and so it’s surprising that director Philip Kaufman chose to illustrate it the way he did. The Right Stuff gets the nuts and bolts right about the Mercury program, but he coats it in a thin veneer of whimsy and fantasy. A purist might blanch at this treatment of history, but in a strange way, it works.
Take the film’s opening passages, which tell the story of Chuck Yeager and the pursuit of the sound barrier. Yeager, as played by Sam Shepard, is a good ol’ boy in the tradition of Gary Cooper or John Wayne. His approach to flying is much the same as say, riding a bucking bronc. – Ya jest git on and do it. Yeager is a mythical character to the denizens of Andrews Air Force base, and in the local watering hole (Whose walls are decorated with the photos of pilots who have been killed). The sound barrier is treated like a mysterious, malevolent ghost, waiting to wrest the controls out of a pilots hands and tear his plane apart in midair. Yeager’s crashing through the barrier dispels these fallacies, and sets the stage for the second part of the film, when the space race gets underway in earnest.
Kaufman again tweaks the story with the introduction of two NASA recruiters, played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer. These two serve the purpose of introducing the Mercury portion of the story, but Kaufman also uses them as pure comic relief. Their narration during a presentation in the White House is hilarious. They bicker over points, and when a montage of possible candidates includes racecar drivers, the comment is “These people are adept at operating their own machinery…and they already have their own crash helmet.” There’s also a back and forth between Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffat) and a German engineer which is striking in it’s illustration of how two people speaking the same language can screw up a conversation.
The reason TRS is such a favorite of mine, however, is because of the astronauts. The film is mainly concerned with only four of the seven: John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). Although Glenn had Nashville and Urban Cowboy under his belt, and Quaid had Breaking Away, none of these guys were big stars yet, and that helps them slide inside the skins of these well-known American heroes. Harris in particular hits just the right notes as the gung-ho Dudley Do-Right John Glenn. This character could have easily come across as hokey, but Harris somehow makes him gentle and earnest, yet as tough as nails. My favorite scene illustrates this beautifully. When Johnson tries to bully his way into Glenn’s house for an interview with Glenn’s wife Annie (who stutters badly), Glenn stands up to the Vice President, rather than let his wife be humiliated on national TV.
Pauline Kael wrote that “The scene is perhaps the wittiest and most deeply romantic confirmation of a marriage ever filmed.” Damn right. Ed Harris is my wife’s favorite actor - She thinks he’s hot. In watching him in this film, I can start to understand why she feels that way. His John Glenn is a Mr. Rogers goody-two-shoes, and is touchingly tender in his scenes with his wife, but he is no softie. When he confronts the others about their sexual indiscretions, he means business. It’s extraordinarily hard for an actor make a character both tender and tough at the same time. John Wayne could do it, but it’s hard to think of many others. Harris does it here, and beautifully. It’s a great performance.
What’s wonderful about this group of guys is the way that the job draws together men who are all strong, and all have an ego. Cooper, Grissom, and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin) are friends going in, and they are openly dismissive of the others, especially Glenn and Scott Carpenter (“Archie and Jughead”, as Grissom calls them) There’s a press conference early on where the men are introduced, and Glenn manages to take center stage with his natural exuberance. The others recognize quickly what’s happening, and the conference subtly turns into a game of one-upmanship. All the same, when Glenn is threatened with being pulled off his flight in the scene described in the previous paragraph, the others back him up on it. Despite their differences, they are pilots, and they support each other.
The same is true of the wives. When the others meet Annie Glenn, she is shy and unresponsive to them. They don’t yet understand why, so they see her as a snob. Later, when John is in his flight, they have all banded together for support. It’s impossible to miss the fact that the women have their own group, bound together just as strongly as that of their husbands.
The truly tragic character in TRS is Gus Grissom. Grissom is the second one into space, but his flight is a disaster. The hatch blows prematurely, and the capsule is lost in the sea. Grissom always maintained he wasn’t at fault, and time has vindicated him, but the film suggests that that wasn’t the case back them. Where the others get to meet the President and have a ticker-tape parade, Grissom gets stuck in a seedy little hotel. The final blow was still to come - Grissom was ultimately killed when a fire tore through his Apollo 1 capsule in 1967.
Watch the seven astronauts during a performance by “fan dancer” Sally Rand. With her huge feathers, and a large harsh light behind her, she brings to mind Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and perished for it. These guys didn’t perish, but they did something just about as outrageous, which only this tiny group can appreciate. When they exchange silent smiles during the show, that’s what’s going on. It’s the acknowledgment that, “Hey, what we did was really special.” The camaraderie is tangible, and the differences they felt at the start are long gone. It’s a beautiful ,transcendant moment.