Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Forty-Three

#43 — The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983)
In 1957, The Soviet Union launched the satellite dubbed Sputnik into orbit around the Earth, setting of a practically unprecedented surge in scientific endeavor within the boundaries of the United States. The country has always done its best when there was a clear, distinct “them” to help define “us” and to allow all goals to be measured in the stark tally of winning and losing. The space race was on, tapping into the best and worst, most graceful and clumsiest of the vaunted American spirit. The country was made up of explorer stock, after all. A willingness to cross vast, dangerous territory to find the next great place, the place that had to be better than where they were at, was seemingly built right into the DNA of the usurpers who turned a land into a nation. Of course the endless unclaimed frontier of the stars was there for the taking, rightfully belonging to the kingdom of knowhow.

That’s the tainted inspiration that informs Tom Wolfe’s dense book about the first Project Mercury astronauts and is beautifully realized onscreen in writer-director Philip Kaufman’s adaptation. The Right Stuff captures the existential cataclysm of a still-young nation that suddenly finds itself as the dominant power in the world, and is already stepping into the vicious cycle of maintaining that authority by constantly reasserting it. The tension to keep moving forward, to constantly get everything right, weighs heavily and visibly on the men in suits gathered in dark rooms, plotting the continued ascendancy of the country. That desire is manifested more literally in the hotshot jet pilots who are recruited to become the first astronauts. They’re overgrown kids–rambunctious, egotistical and petulant–who cant help but view the astounding machines they strap themselves into as the greatest play-sets ever made by man. To suit the needs of their country, they’re also ready-made heroes, just add rockets.

The dance between practically, truth and presentation is the whirring heart of Kaufman’s movie, and is arguably the spirit of its own fictionalized portrayal of fact. There’s a need to make these men inspirational, which pushes John Glenn–such an embodiment of American principles that he may as well be a sentient slice of apple pie–to the forefront, and causes agitated debate over whether or not Gus is a suitable name for an astronaut. Kaufman allows for both the majesty of the astronauts’ accomplishments and the mischievousness of their behavior. They are merely men, flawed and funny and troubled in all the same ways as their brothers who keep feet firmly affixed to the surface of the Earth. Naturally that makes their defiance of gravity all the more impressive.

Kaufman films it all with an unerring sense of narrative flow. The film bounds and soars when it needs to, and settles in to a lower gear at all he right moments. He even displays a devious sense of humor with a sequence involving one of the astronauts locked into his capsule, agonizing over his need to go to the bathroom. Kaufman edits together shots of spraying hoses and a ground control technician walking away from a flushing toilet, wholly relieved and satisfied. These are details the astronaut wouldn’t be privy to, they wouldn’t impact his dilemma in the slightest. But this arrives in the film at around the two hour mark of of the film, with over an hour yet to go in its extended running time. It is, it seems, Kaufman’s way of poking at the filled bladders of those in the movie theater audience, a cheeky acknowledgment of one added challenge of watching the lengthy film. That’s not just a visual prank; it’s representative of the way the film melds impish humor with journalistic integrity. That’s not the usual approach for a film that surveys an important piece of the American experience, but perhaps it should be. The tone of Kaufman’s film matches the way we live our history.

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