The Apollo missions are what comes to mind when talk of rockets and space exploration takes place. After all, Apollo 11 was what landed the very first human beings ever on the moon, and the names of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong are still remembered to this day. Perhaps that’s because since then we haven’t accomplished anything much greater than that with people at the helm. Now, machines are able to take the helm in our place, as shown by the Mars Rover. There was a time when astronauts had celebrity status but even this has changed since. “The Right Stuff” portrays the events of the Mercury missions that took place before Apollo, and were chiefly concerned with getting Americans up into space at whatever the cost. Most won’t have any prior knowledge of the Mercury missions, or who was involved with them, and I certainly didn’t. This is something “The Right Stuff” taps into, the fickle nature of humanity and its tendency to move from one celebrity fad to the next, and it is a masterpiece.
The film spans in total around 20 years, it opens as Chuck Yeager (Sam Shephard) attempts and succeeds to become the first man ever to reach Mach 1 and break the sound barrier. He becomes an instant celebrity but is quickly forgotten as technology moves on and the next focus of America becomes beating Russia in the space race. A race that leaves many of America’s pioneers behind in it’s wake. This is the integral theme of “The Right Stuff” and it plays out perfectly. A majority of the movie is made up of the 7 members of the mercury mission overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to succeed in the space program and to be the first men in space. Interspersed between this are scenes showing Chuck Yaeger adjusting to his life, craving any kind of obstacle that would require him to jump into a plane and overcome it, watching the space program unfold and knowing he could have been a part of it. It’s oddly harrowing but also anchored in reality, turning it into a disturbing representation of the fickle nature of humanity.
Apart from its themes, each scene feels as though it’s being handled and moulded by a man with full mastery of his art. Phillip Kaufman is tremendous at infusing each scene with certain mixtures of humour, tension, excitement, intelligence and anything else he wants, he seems to be able to achieve. Even when I wasn’t watching planes being expertly filmed with a sense of speed unparalleled in any other movie I have ever seen, or when I wasn’t watching space capsules orbiting the earth surrounded by unexplainable “fireflies”, I was always in awe. The film never lets up its pace and each individual scene is so well done that the idea that the film would have to end after a meagre 3 hours was genuinely upsetting. Something that keeps the run time from feeling ridiculous is the fact that “The right Stuff” could be considered an epic. In that, the movie doesn’t dwell on one dilemma for the films entirety. The first part of the film, as I’ve said, concerns breaking the sound barrier. It then goes onto breaking Mach 2. Then it shifts completely onto the space race and the Mercury pilots have to deal with the idea that they are genuinely being put up against chimps in the race to be the first American men in space. There is always something new around the corner and its near impossible to anticipate where Kaufman will take the film next. But what’s really significant is that it all feels completely relevant and perfectly tied around the integral themes of the movie. The movie evolves as man’s ambitions evolve within it and it just fits like a glove.
There isn’t a shortage of characters either, and while I couldn’t remember names, I could tie faces to personalities. John Glenn (Ed Harris) is the poster boy of the mission, he oozes charm and in one scene holds his colleagues up as he speaks to the crowd. He is a character of near perfection with both charisma and a strong moral compass. Harris does a spectacular job of portraying Glenn and in fact everyone of the main band of characters does so as well. There isn’t one performance in the movie that felt like a performance, impressive considering they all had to mould themselves after the real astronauts that took part in the mercury missions. Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer play the recruiters and they provide some comic relief as a wonderfully incompetent duo that play off each others flaws. Humour in the right stuff never feels forced and is just perfectly laced into the narrative, which actually makes it far funnier. There is some really witty stuff in here too; like when someone asks why Russia are winning the space race and the next few seconds are spent trying to fix the projector because someone dropped a cap. Sometimes the humour comes from the relationships between the astronauts, which just feels very strong and brotherly and most importantly real. Bonds are formed between the astronauts to varying degrees as one would usually find in any large group of people. The dialogue and relationships are the driving force of the film in my opinion and they really are in a league of their own.
By the time the credits roll you’ll have felt a strange range of emotions and you’ll feel better for it. This is my favourite movie of all time and that’s because, like the men putting their lives on the line for their country within, it has the right stuff.