The Right Stuff

–       Directed by Philip Kaufman
–       Starring Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward

The Right Stuff  is in desperate need of the right editor pardon the pun. At over three hours, the movie is just far too long. Now length by itself is not an indicator of a film’s quality. Lawrence of Arabia, for example, is brilliant. However, length can also indicate a lack of direction and focus, which certainly holds true for this particular movie. Inspired by a novel of the same name, The Right Stuff struggles to include every detail of the books while sacrificing coherency. Now, when converting a book to a movie it is always important to focus on the pure essentials. If you try to include everything the movie will drag.

The Right Stuff tells the story of the early days of space exploration. Desperate to catch up with the Russians, The U.S. recruits a group of the best test pilots to undergo intensive training. In the course of this, the original seven pilots of Project Mercury face off against the dangers of spaceflight, over-cautious scientists, and an overbearing media. Though frankly this movie suffers from the oversimplification and frankly caricaturization of its heroes and villains. The depiction of the scientists as bumbling fools with heavy German accents is just insulting. While I understand the tension and frustration that existed between the astronauts and engineers they are part of the same team; they are cogs of the same machine. And at times, I almost felt that the main antagonist was not the challenge of spaceflight but the media. (Yes, I got the hint the first time that reporters are like paparazzi; you didn’t have to show it twenty times over.)

I did enjoy the actual missions though (despite the very dated special effects.) If the movie had just concentrated on those, I think it could have been truly great. The fact that two of the flights weren’t even shown demonstrates the misplaced priorities. For me the most striking event is the conclusion of Gus Grissom’s flight. Grissom nearly drowns and his capsule is lost after the hatch blows prematurely. Bearing the blame for this mishap, Grissom is visibly shaken and demoralized. Yet, he and his wife in spite of the consequent stress and shame must still put on a good face for the television.

The film also includes a subplot concerning Chuck Yeager and the efforts to break the sound barrier. While interesting, I couldn’t help but feel that this belonged to a different movie. Nevertheless, it does pose the question of what makes a great pilot. Smashing records and setting precedence is one thing, but determination and courage even in the face of failure are more crucial, whether those qualities are demonstrated on the top of a rocket or before a reporter’s microphone.

* *