"The Right Stuff" Revisited

by Armand Vaquer

Above, the seven Mercury astronauts are introduced to the press for the first time.

Posting earlier today on my blog about the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard's flight into space in Freedom 7 (May 5, 1961) got me into the mood to watch the 1983 movie version of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. It was the first time in ages I popped in the old VHS of the movie.

The Right Stuff is one of those kinds of movies that has to sit a while before viewing again. Not that it's bad. Not at all. This is to keep the movie "fresh" to me. The movie is over three hours long (if it included the X-15 project as Wolfe's book did, the movie would be at least five hours long). Even though the running time is a bit over three hours, its pacing and compelling story makes those three hours go by fast.

It begins with Chuck Yeager's breaking of the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 (named "Glamorous Glennis" after his wife) and moves into the Project Mercury program with emphasis on the Shepard, Grissom, Glenn and Cooper (to a lesser extent) flights.

Above, the astronauts pose with a Mercury capsule for the press after modification demands are agreed to by German NASA scientists.

The Right Stuff has a number of compelling performances. These include Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager (can you spot the real Chuck Yeager in a cameo?), Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper, Barbara Hershey as Glennis Yeager and Fred Ward as Gus Grissom.

Philip Kaufman directed as well as wrote the screenplay, based on Wolfe's book.

The movie also has an excellent Bill Conti score.

By today's standards, the special effects are primitive, but still are effective.

John Glenn was a U.S. Senator from Ohio at the time The Right Stuff came out and ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1984. He hoped that the movie would give his candidacy a boost. It didn't. His campaign fizzled like a Vanguard rocket.

If you've never seen The Right Stuff, you may want to get a copy to view next month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard's flight into space.* I will probably watch again it next February when the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's orbital flight arrives.

My grade: A.

*Another movie to consider is The Space Movie (which features music by Michael Oldfield), if you can get your hands on a copy. The Space Movie was produced in 1979 by Tony Palmer at the request of NASA, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

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