Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Apollo 40th Anniversary Movie Tribute: The Right Stuff (1983)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Apollo 40th Anniversary Movie Tribute: The Right Stuff (1983)

There is no movie that pushes my patriotic buttons as deftly as Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff. Based on the book by Tom Wolfe, the film compares pioneering test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) to the seven Mercury program astronauts on the subject of what it truly takes to be a hero. As in Wolfe's book, a considerable amount of time is spent on the nonsensical experiments conducted on a group of pilots before being pared down to the famous seven candidates: Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom (Fred Ward), Donald K. "Deke" Slayton (Scott Paulin), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen). The implication is that a certain amount of randomness came into play in the selection of these American idols, in contrast to Yeager's self-inspired pursuit of danger in the service of knowledge.

But it quickly becomes apparent that these seven men are not content simply being "astronaut occupants" as the scientists behind NASA's space program refer to them. The seven use their newfound celebrity and public support as leverage to become "astronaut pilots," lobbying for total control of the spacecraft once the flight is underway, and transcending their role as test subjects to become true American heroes.

Today, as we celebrate the anniversary of the moment when the space race reached its apex, I'd like to pay tribute in my own way by sharing some of my favorite moments from this awe-inspiring film.

Trudy Cooper (Pamela Reed): I went back east to a reunion and all my friends could talk about their husband's work. How "dog-eat-dog" and cutthroat it was on Madison Ave. Places like that. Cutthroat. I wondered how they would've felt if every time their husband went in to make a deal, there was a one-in-four chance he wouldn't come out of that meeting. [begins sobbing]

Reporter: Gentlemen, which one of you will be first into space?

Game Show Host: Major, Eddie here has a little problem with his girlfriend. Did you ever have a problem like that when you were 10?
John Glenn: Yes, I did, Bob. I liked a girl in my class, but all the other guys liked her too and she didn't pay any attention. But, I kept after her, Eddie.
Game Show Host: Did you finally get her to notice you?
John Glenn: Yes, I did. In fact, I finally got her to marry me.


John Glenn: Annie, listen to me, OK? You listening? If you don't want the Vice President or the TV networks or anybody else to come into the house, then that's it, as far as I'm concerned. They are NOT coming in, and I will back you all the way, a hundred percent on this. And you tell them that, OK? I don't want Johnson or any of the rest of them to set as much as one TOE inside our house.
Annie Glenn (Mary Jo Deschanel): OK.
John Glenn: You tell them that-- that Astronaut John Glenn told you to say that.

"Gordo" Cooper: You boys know what makes this bird go up? FUNDING makes this bird go up.
"Gus" Grissom: He's right. No bucks, no Buck Rogers.

Alan Shepard: Request permission to relieve bladder.

Alan Shepard: [during enema continence test] Tell me something, Mr. Gonzalez. You ever have any explosions doing this?
Gonzalez (Anthony Muñoz): All the time. It's a mess.
Alan Shepard: Tell me something else, Mr. Gonzalez. How am I doing?
Gonzalez: I think you're going to make it, man. I think you're going to be an astronaut.

"Gus" Grissom: I was just lying there... flat on my back, and it just blew.
Review Board Member: Thank you, Mr. Grissom. [Grissom walks out.] Well, what do you think?
Review Board President: Explosive hatches have been on jet fighters for ten years. The damn things have been wrung inside out... subjected to trial by heat, by water, by shaking, pounding. We even drop them from a height of 100 feet onto concrete... and not one of them has ever "just blown."

Betty Grissom (Veronica Cartwright): I thought I was going to be Honorable Mrs. Astronaut, and I ended up being Honorable Mrs. Squirming Hatchblower.

John Glenn: I see something strange out here. Ooooooh my goodness gracious what the h--heck is that? Sparks and needles of some kind, all over the sky! This is Friendship 7 and let me tell you what I'm in up here. I'm in a-- in a mass of some very small particles that are brilliantly lit up, like they're luminescent. I never saw anything like it... a whole shower of them coming by me now. They're bright bright yellow, and they're all lit up. They swirl around the capsule, and they go in front of the window, and they're brilliantly lighted. Y--You don't think these--these things could be alive, do ya? I know it sounds ridiculous but they look like fireflies or something. [chuckles] Whoa, whoa! Maybe some Air Force experiment went amok or something. Could our astronomers have been wrong? Hello, Capcom, do you read me? This is miraculous!

Chuck Yeager: Hey, Ridley, ya got any Beeman's?
Jack Ridley(Levon Helm): Yeah, I think I got me a stick.
Chuck Yeager: Loan me some, will ya? I'll pay ya back later.
Jack Ridley: Fair enough.

The Right Stuff airs tonight at 10 p.m. ET on TCM as part of their celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the First Moon Landing.


Unknown said...

I love this film and ended up catching it on TCM last night. Great film. Altho, what I find interesting about it is how director Philip Kaufman pushes some patriotic buttons he does spend a lot of time poking fun at many of the astronauts, from John Glenn's gee-whiz boy scout rep., to Alan Shepard's racism ("My name is Jose Jimenez.") and how that comes back to bite him in the ass, to hints at some of the astronauts' infidelities. I also found it interesting how he portrays Lyndon Johnson as somewhat of a buffoon (like the scene where he keeps misinterpreting what the German scientist says) and the two government types (played by Jeff Goldblum and Harry Sheerer) as goofy Abbott and Costello types.

The only person who seems exempt from any kind of critique is Yeager who is portrayed as an unfaltering hero (and rightly so), which seems to suggest that Kaufman sees him as the only one of the bunch (along with Scott Crossfield and other test pilots) with the "right stuff."

The film has a very odd rhythm and tone for big, Hollywood epic, which is probably one of the reason why I like it so much. If you haven't had a chance to, you should read the excellent BFI Modern Classics book on the film, which offers fantastic analysis and the author had access to Kaufman so he dishes some behind-the-scenes stuff as well.

Tony Dayoub said...


I don't get your reference to "semiotic connections to Barackobanum." Please explain.


All good points you make. Personally, I think Glenn's shine, and Shepard's racism were symptoms of a more naive era depicted in the film. The depictions of Johnson and the goverment types (and indeed, the scientists and press), are all in keeping with Wolfe's book, where they are treated monolithically as ignorant characters with their own agendas.

You are correct that Yeager is presented as the only impeccable one of them all, a rumored point of contention between Wolfe and Kaufman, and also rumored to have been, at least in part, behind screenwriter William Goldman's departure from the project and refusal to be credited for his work.

textman said...

My favourite best film ever, even back here in Italy Milan. And even if I can't share any patriotic feelings (Garibaldi was not in there) the figure of Chuck Yeager definitely touches me every time I see him. The hero type of person which "doesn't do something that a monkey can do".
I use watch it once a year, at least.
Buona Giornata

Unknown said...

I just wanted to add that it was a genius bit of casting having Sam Shepard play Yeager. He does more with a look and chewing of gum than any bit of dialogue. He really gives Yeager the iconic status he deserves. Amazing performance.

do you have a flag? said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I don't know who checks the facts here but John Ridley it is NOT.
Jackie 'Jack' Ridley was an extraordinary mechanical engineer and test pilot.
Mr Wolfe would have you grounded.

Tony Dayoub said...

I stand corrected (and so does the article). I must have had writer John Ridley (Three Kings) on my mind, since I see him often on MSNBC's Morning Joe.