Is That a Man? by Bob Connally

22 Aug

Upon seeing the 2-minute trailer for Disney+’s upcoming series adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, The Right Stuff, I was struck by how unexciting it all looked. How do you make the story of the pioneer days of humanity’s greatest and most exciting endeavor appear so dull? Hopefully, the series – when it premieres on October 9 – will turn out to be the engrossing and thrilling show that the story deserves, but whether it is or not, the greatness of Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film adaptation stands the test to time.

Beginning in 1947, The Right Stuff opens with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), a United States Air Force test pilot who is appropriately fearless but thoughtful in his risk-taking. Despite having two broken ribs after falling from a horse (something he did not tell the Air Force), on October 14, Yeager climbed into the cockpit of the rocket-powered Bell X-1 and broke the sound barrier for the first time in history. Despite his groundbreaking achievement, military officials classify the event for fear that the Russians might learn of it. “The Russians?!” a news reporter present for the flight asks. “They’re our allies!” Still, it’s not long before the news gets out and Yeager becomes renowned the world over.

Six years later, the Air Force not only wants Yeager’s achievement known, but they also want to play it up to secure more funding as they push the limits of test aircraft even further. With new pilots added to the fold such as Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), and Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), the best of the best are being assembled. After the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik by the Soviets in 1957, the American government realizes that not only has the Space Race begun but that the USSR has gotten off to an early lead. After a lengthy, grueling testing period, seven pilots are chosen to be the first American astronauts. Grissom, Slayton, and Cooper all make the cut along with three naval aviators, Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen), and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), and finally a United States Marine by the name of John Glenn (Ed Harris). Yeager for his part is not even asked to take the tests as his lack of college degree- amongst other trivial things- makes him seem unsuitable for the image NASA wants to project.

The Right Stuff has a spark and a soul to it that make every moment of its 3-hour and 13-minute run time exciting, as the time zips by faster than many movies half its length. While it details the history of Project Mercury, in spirit it’s part western, part adventure film. This feels all too fitting as test pilots had become the new cowboys and the early and wildly dangerous days of spaceflight were humanity’s greatest adventure yet.

As screenwriter and director, Kaufman’s love and admiration for the subject are apparent without it becoming gushing. While the majority of the film after the first act is focused on the Mercury 7 (Gordon, Grissom, Shepard, and Glenn in particular), Kaufman does keep checking in on Yeager and it always feels as though Yeager is Kaufman’s personal favorite figure through all of this. While the astronauts shine in the national spotlight as America’s heroes of the Cold War, Yeager quietly continues his work as a test pilot in the desert, his 15 minutes seemingly up. Sam Shepard’s low key performance as Yeager is probably the film’s best and it earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. While The Right Stuff received 8 Academy Award nominations in all, Shepard was the only member of the cast to be nominated.

Serving as a counterpoint to Shepard’s work, the actors playing the highest-profile astronauts display bigger personalities. Scott Glenn portrays the first American in space, Alan Shepard as something of a lighthearted comedian, but one who never loses sight of what he is there to do and who can become as intense as anyone else. Fred Ward’s Gus Grissom is the most emotionally volatile of the 7 and after a technical malfunction casts a cloud over him upon his craft’s splashdown, he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders under the scrutiny of the program. Quaid is incredibly fun to watch as Cooper, “the hot dog man himself.” His cockiness is endearing as opposed to simply narcissistic and insufferable. As the space program’s golden boy, John Glenn, Ed Harris rises to maybe the most difficult task any actor has in the film. Glenn speaks and behaves like an adult boy scout, something the press and the public of the time eats up, but far from being an act, it’s who Glenn truly is privately. Harris makes it all completely believable and his scenes with Mary Jo Deschanel as Glenn’s wife Annie are among the best in the movie.

As for Annie and the other wives of the astronauts, Deschanel, Veronica Cartwright (as Betty Grissom), and Pamela Reed (as Trudy Cooper) get the most screentime and they make the most of it. Betty’s shattered when she learns she won’t get to meet Jackie Kennedy after Gus’s return from his mission. After years of sacrifice as the wife of a test pilot and now astronaut, she feels she is due something- anything- from the U.S. government. Reed stands out in her scenes both with the other wives and in her scenes with Quaid, as Trudy sees through all of Cooper’s bluster. 

As Annie Glenn, a woman whose stutter makes her incredibly shy in social situations, Deschanel is terrific. One of the more memorable scenes in the film sees her terrified by the idea of press and even worse, Vice President Lyndon Johnson entering her home to speak with her on television. Trudy acts as an immovable guard at Annie’s front door as Johnson (through his staff) demands to be allowed inside. When Glenn learns of the situation, the status of his flight in question, he tells Annie on the phone that if she doesn’t want the Vice President or anyone else in their home, “Then they are not coming in! And I will back you up all the way, one hundred percent on this! …You tell them that astronaut John Glenn told you to say that.” It’s a sweet moment between the two and the sequence as a whole demonstrates the bonds between all of the astronauts and the bonds between all of the wives. These are people who have been through the wringer together by this point and it’s a great payoff scene highlighting that. In a movie that is an ensemble historical account that has the feel of a western and an action-adventure, scenes like this show just how much Kaufman focuses on character in The Right Stuff. The people are never lost in the shuffle of everything else.

In technical terms, every aspect of this film soars, no pun intended. Caleb Deschanel’s (Mary Jo’s husband) cinematography is beautiful, providing the epic scope the story demands. The combination of Deschanel’s work and the use of sound brings you into those aircraft and spacecraft, making every flight utterly thrilling. Bill Conti’s Oscar-winning score has deservedly become legendary. It fits perfectly with the tone Kaufman sets. This is a movie that makes the viewer feel legitimately inspired. It shows that failure and struggle are a part of the process and that makes the victories all the more meaningful. Whether you aspire to be an astronaut or not, anyone can walk away from The Right Stuff uplifted. It reminds us that we all have it within us to do something special, without ever getting syrupy about it. In its way, this is a perfect movie for right now.

The film culminates with the Mercury 7 being honored at a public event in Texas, celebrating their accomplishments and their status, intercut with Yeager going off on his own in an unauthorized test flight which forces him to eject and almost burns his face off. As the astronauts watch a feather dancer perform to Clair de Lune, the seven of them spy each other in their seats and share a moment where they acknowledge what each of them has been through together. It’s a moment of quiet satisfaction that speaks volumes to the viewer about how these seven men know something that no one else alive possibly could. (Steven Soderbergh stole this moment to great effect for Ocean’s Eleven eighteen years later.) Meanwhile, with no parades or celebrations awaiting him, Yeager is pushing a plane further than he’s ever pushed one before and it nearly costs him his life. As he ejects and the plane crashes, the astronauts back in Texas seem to know that somewhere out there, a pilot is risking his life to push not only a plane but all of us a little further into the future. As Yeager’s old friend Ridley rides in a jeep in hopes of finding Yeager alive, the driver spots a figure in the distance. “Is that a man?” the driver asks, barely able to believe it. Conti’s music swells as Ridley breaks into an enormous grin and replies, “Yeah, you damn right it is.” As well regarded as The Right Stuff is, this sequence is never really discussed as one of the great moments in cinematic history but it absolutely should be.

As you can tell, I love this movie. It has a sense of patriotism that not even the most hardened cynic could sneer at, it moves along at a wonderful pace, deploys a strong sense of humor at the right times (“They call them aviators in the Navy. They say they’re better than pilots!” which is a line I love as someone from a long line of people who’ve served in the Navy and Marine Corps), and is an epic that keeps its focus on its characters.

Despite critical acclaim and 8 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, The Right Stuff was a box-office disappointment for Warner Brothers in late 1983/early ’84. Still, the movie won 4 Oscars. Along with Conti, it won for sound, sound effects editing, and film editing. Showing that its legacy gained strength over time, its most famous shot which features the Mercury 7 all in their full gear heroically walking together has been parodied many times, perhaps most famously in Monsters Inc. of all things.

37 years after its release, most of the people portrayed in the film (many of whom were alive at the time), have passed on. In what seems a strange twist of fate, Yeager has outlived not only each member of the Mercury 7, but the actor who played him. At the age of 97, Yeager is alive and well, with a very active Twitter account and he’s been seen attending Los Angeles Dodgers games in recent years. And now, 73 years after his first record-breaking flight, Chuck Yeager is arguably the right answer to the question, “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?”

2 Responses to “Is That a Man? by Bob Connally”

  1. Bro August 22, 2020 at 1:50 pm #

    I can’t imagine that the new series will even remotely live up to this absolute master class in storytelling and practical effects. But I hope that it’ll stand up on its own merits.

    This movie and Top Gun probably shaped the trajectory of my life far more than any films should. And at flight school, THIS was probably the most quoted film between me and my roommates. Far more than Top Gun. But maybe we were just weird like that. It’s still one that I’ll deploy every so often, usually to bewilderment of younger coworkers and the amusement of guys a good deal older than me.

    As you may remember Bob (or not… it’s been that long: 1999!), I met John Glenn at a book signing of his autobiography when I was in Pensacola. I have an old Kodak picture from actual film stock of us there, me standing at the table, him signing, along with Mrs. Annie Glenn sitting there speaking briefly to me. She seemed absolutely lovely and reminded me so much of Grandma, having apparently long overcome the stutter that afflicted her in the 1960s.

    I also almost – ALMOST – had a run in with Dennis Quaid. There he was, at Disneyland, clear as day (this is probably about 2004?) not 40ft from me. I fought off the urge to walk over and ask him who the best pilot he ever saw was. … Mostly only because I wasn’t flying anymore at that point. Ah well…

    And hey, you forgot to mention that Yeager is IN the movie as the bartender at Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club. You’re slippin’, Bro! His exploits are fictionalized a bit for dramatic purposes here, but the real stories are no less thrilling – they’d just take too long to tell!

    • Bob Connally August 23, 2020 at 7:04 am #

      I had forgotten you had met John and Annie Glenn. Weirdly, I did remember your Dennis Quaid story though. Yeah, Mrs. Glenn had gone through what was a new program in the ’70s to help her overcome her stutter and she spent the rest of her life working with organizations who helped others with stuttering problems until she died just this year. At 100. So she and Grandma had living very long lives in common too.

      I always recognize Yeager in his cameo (if you’ve ever seen the man, you can’t miss him there), but just didn’t think to mention it here. Maybe instead of remaking this as a mini-series they should have just made something new all about Yeager. I’d be excited for that.

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