The Beginning of the Beginning
On the evening of the day on which Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier in The Right Stuff, he howls in victory at the full moon over the desert of Edwards Air Force Base. In a tiny red plane that looks like a bullet with wings, Yeager, who lives to fly, flew faster than any human had before, and that feat is the first step in sending humans to the target of his celebratory howls.
We’re still at the dawn of space exploration today, more than 40 years later, still just dipping our toes in the ocean of space, so director Philip Kaufman’s wonderful film is not only an ode to flying but to the pilots who sacrificed one dream in exchange for another to set America — and humanity — on the road to space.
When the United States government starts revving up its space program in response to the Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik in 1957, it’s not looking for flyboys like Yeager (Sam Shepard: Snow Falling on Cedars) to represent America in space — he’s too damn independent. The search is on, through a cadre of military aviators, to find those both temperamentally and physically suited to the rigors of space travel… and to becoming instant media magnets, ones who won’t embarrass themselves or anyone else. With grace, charm, and understated humor, Kaufman, who also adapted Tom Wolfe’s book, traces the selection process the potential Mercury astronauts go through by following those eventually chosen: Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), Gordy Cooper (Dennis Quaid), John Glenn (Ed Harris: Stepmom, The Truman Show), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward: Dangerous Beauty), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen: Scream 3, Tarzan), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn: The Virgin Suicides, The Silence of the Lambs), and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin).
Rarely has such an epic film — in length, at more than three hours, and in scope, spanning decades — been handled with such remarkable spareness. Without flourishes such as dramatic camerawork or an emotionally manipulative score, The Right Stuff puts us right in the middle of some of the most historic moments of the 20th century, among people who knew exactly how momentous those moments were, and simply lets us experience them. The first sonic boom — as Yeager’s experimental X-1 plane passes Mach 1 — almost slips by unnoticed. We’re introduced to urgent new developments in the Soviets’ space program by the lanky legs of Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, Annie Hall), as NASA recruiter, racing down a Washington, DC, corridor to a smoke-filled conference room to break the news to assembled powermongers. (Goldblum’s recruiter, and his partner, played by Harry Shearer, [EDtv, The Truman Show] are the film’s unexpected, if low-key, comic relief.) Even during John Glenn’s first orbit around the planet, Kaufman just lets us enjoy with him the spectacular view of the sun coming up over the horizon.
Still, the moving moments in The Right Stuff are the private ones. The undertaker hovers like a specter at test flights, his services needed all too often — the wall in the saloon at Edwards is a shrine to dead test pilots. The funeral of one of the test pilots trying to break Mach 1 — “no one knew their names,” unlike the astronauts later — always sends chills through me as planes in the missing-man formation fly overhead. The wives of the test pilots and the astronauts suffer — in substandard base housing, through intrusive media attention — while their husbands bask in glory, or at least in doing what they love, as the women constantly await news of a pilot’s death in his dangerous game.
As the Mercury astronauts watch themselves become manufactured heroes — even before they’ve done a single thing worth cheering about — cynicism eats into some of them. They love to fly, but they all but gave it up for a single chance to head into space for mere minutes. Kaufman keeps returning to Yeager, who never stopped flying for the sheer love of it. Even though Yeager, at one point, looks toward the moon with regret, obviously aware of the chance he never had, you can’t help but wonder who’s still living the dream: the Mercury astronauts, with their one moment of glory, or Yeager, who never stopped flying.