The year is 1947 and far away from civilisation in the California desert there are endeavours afoot to bring off a top secret project to break the sound barrier in an aeroplane. There has been a selection of failed attempts, some ending in death, but such is the life of a test pilot, fraught with danger once they are up in the skies. However, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), a World War II flying ace who was celebrated in military circles for his bravery is now interested, and as a skilled pilot, possibly the most skilled in the United States, the powers that be are keen to see him at the controls of their most advanced prototype yet. It won’t be a smooth journey, especially after Yeager breaks ribs in a riding accident, but somehow he succeeds and history is made…
There was a lot of history being made in director Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s bestselling book, a true life account of what went on behind the scenes in America’s space programme of the nineteen-fifties and sixties. Kaufman took the source’s idolisation of Yeager, who by all accounts was happy to be lauded in such a fashion, and who wouldn’t be, to bring to bear a more searching examination of heroism and how it had changed from the famed pilot’s heyday to how we regarded them in the eighties. Of course, there was no shortage of heroes in American cinema of that decade, many of them wielding guns and doling out violence to prove themselves, but here was someone to look up to who didn’t kill anyone for the full three hours plus The Right Stuff lasted.
Yeager had naturally killed during the war, but his portrayal here and the band of Mercury space pioneers were not shown to be bloodthirsty in the least, at odds with the Ronald Reagan era of politics this would-be blockbuster emerged from. As a result, what appeared to be a sure thing flopped very badly at the box office, leaving the studio and filmmakers reeling that an item of such obvious quality should fail to strike a chord at all with the public who were fresh from enjoying the escapades of the Space Shuttles – this was three years before the Challenger disaster made them feel a lot less invincible. Yet there was more to it than that, as Kaufman’s tone was always questioning, always asking us how we were reacting to these images of sometimes noble, other times crass people.
Look at the way the women were presented: the wives of the Mercury crew and Yeager’s spouse Glennis (Barbara Hershey) were always fretting, wondering if any of this was worth it when there was a very real possibility that the next flight could be their last and they would never see their husbands alive again, a tone of worry that was at odds of the more straightforward celebration it could have been. That President John F. Kennedy featured often in archive footage only underlined the fragility of those we look up to, both because they may have feet of clay and because someone or something might cut them down just when we need them most. For this reason, The Right Stuff played far better later on once its considerable cult following was established, as the idea of irony pervaded pop culture in a way displayed here, but ahead of its time for 1983 when Kaufman was examining the phenomenon.
In pitiless detail, as he recreated various events, some more fictionalised than others, with a view to pondering the worth of such possibly deadly events, and all for some nebulous concept of glory that by his time, after the late sixties in fact, not everyone was buying into. That said, when the director wished to portray the incredible feats concerned he truly dedicated himself to them: contrast the treatment of Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) whose heroism is in doubt thanks to an uncertainty about whether he jettisoned his capsule door or not with the flight of John Glen (Ed Harris) as he orbited the globe, a magical and near-mystical sequence that was among the greatest of the eighties as he marvels at his situation as Australian aborigines perform a ceremony back on Earth and at mission control they realise he is very close to death thanks to faulty equipment. No matter the tendency to caricature, that too was part of the film’s relentless examination of derring-do, with even Yeager called into queries about how sensible he was for pushing himself and how sensible we were for admiring him. The conclusion was mixed: we needed these heroes, but regretfully admitted they had their flaws, a state of mind that would only grow more relevant as the new millennium dawned. Music by Bill Conti.