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No bucks, no Buck Rogers
by Asa Butcher
2009-04-09 08:39:14
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The Right Stuff
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Warner, 1983

Before the famous Apollo missions began, NASA launched its space program with Project Mercury, which was the United States' first manned spaceflight program. Its simple aim was to put a man in orbit around the Earth, but this was not a simple matter as scientists, astronauts and politicians were to discover from its creation in 1959 through to its end in 1963.

In 1979, Tom Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff that examined the space race, including the Soviet Union's Sputnik to the American's own program. His book was then transformed by Philip Kaufman into the 1983 Oscar-winning film that I am now going to review. However, in a strange twist, it is the parallel story of test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, which really captures your imagination.

The film opens on Edwards Air Force Base and introduces Yeager riding a horse. He stops to look at the experimental X1, in which he would later surpass Mach 1 while suffering from two broken ribs - this is the beginning of The Right Stuff and it sets the scene for an exhilarating, awe-inspiring, moving film. The underlying element of cool in the movie demands your respect to all involved and this is evident from the very first scenes.

Sam Shepherd was nominated for his portrayal of Yeager, which was ironic considering Shepherd is actually afraid of flying. Despite the majority of the film focusing upon the Mercury Project, it does flash back to Yeager who continued to "challenge the demon that lives in the air" despite the world's attention trained on the exploration of space. Amazingly today, it is surprising to learn that NASA didn't recruit Yeager as an astronaut because he lacked a college education.

The Right Stuff respectfully acknowledges Yeager, but pushes on with Mercury and the Mercury Seven, superbly played by Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Paulin, Lance Henriksen and Charles Frank. Only seven men were chosen from the 110 military pilots that applied to the Mercury Project and the film recreates many of the surreal and comical tests that these men were forced to undertake, which was one of my favourite parts of the film.

The camaraderie between the seven is cemented by the fact that they all realise that NASA is happy to use chimpanzees rather than astronauts, which was rudely demonstrated when Sam the monkey reached the altitude of 85 kilometres in 1959. As a unit, they remind the stubborn German scientists that without them funding would soon stop, or as Gus Grisson (Ward) says in the film, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers!"

The film documents Alan Shepard's (Glenn) Freedom 7 flight, which was the first suborbital flight into space by an American and was the birth of Shepherd's prayer: "Dear Lord, please don't let me fuck up." The second suborbital flight was made by Gus Grissom, but upon splashdown the hatch unexpectedly blew off and the capsule sank before recovery, which is exaggerated slightly in the film pointing blame at Grissom for panicking. It is a harsh segment of the film that leaves you feeling embarrassed at his terrible treatment.

Ed Harris' John Glenn was my favourite character, with his 'Gollies' and 'Gee whizzes', and devotion to his wife, who is thrust into the media spotlight. Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth and the scene is beautifully recreated leaving you desperate to join the current space program and view the Earth from space yourself.

The special effects, costumes and art direction set this film apart and convince you that the recreations are genuine, although I did read that the spacesuits were made form Cher's costume leftovers. The effects, editing and sound effects editing all won Oscars, while art direction and cinematography were nominated, which shows the level of attention injected into making this a realistic film was…astronomical!

The four remaining members of the Mercury Seven team Malcolm Carpenter (Frank), Wally Schirra (Henriksen), Deke Slayton (Paulin) and Gordon Cooper (Quaid) all provide their own individual moments, especially Quaid as the cocky 'Gordo', who was the last of the seven to make it into space, but eventually lived up to the 'Greatest Ever Pilot' tag he often gave himself. In addition, watch out for Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer as two of NASA's recruitment officers!

The Right Stuff is a superb film that examines just why Man pushes the limits of exploration and discovery. It isn't about money and it isn't fame, these men, and now women, are driven by an invisible force, perhaps it is the demo in the sky. Whatever it is, the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia knew the risks, but were motivated to the extent that they lost their lives to the cause.

I'll end with Chuck Yeager's comment in the film following Gus Grissom's capsule loss:

"Monkeys? You think a monkey knows he's sittin' on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see? Well, I'll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that's on TV. Ol' Gus, he did all right."

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Sand2007-01-27 10:57:37
As a kid who grew up with H.G.Wells tales and Astounding Science Fiction the film had a special impact for me. I took flying lessons back in 1949 with the hopes of eventually getting to the Moon but I never had the "right stuff". But I lived it through these real heros and that it took place in my lifetime was one reason life for me was worth living.

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