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Warner Home Video presents

The Right Stuff (1983)

"I'll tell you something: it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission. Especially when it's on TV. Old Gus, he did all right."- Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard)

Stars: Charles Frank, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Lance Henriksen, Scott Paulin, Dennis Quaid, Sam Shepard, Fred Ward, Kim Stanley, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed
Other Stars: David Clennon, Harry Shearer, Jeff Goldblum, Chuck Yeager, Donald Moffat, Levon Helm
Director: Philip Kaufman

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: PGRun Time: 03h:12m:31s
Release Date: 2003-06-10
Genre: epic

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

Ours is a jaded time, and the most elusive commodity of all may be genuine heroism. Some of the bravery in the face of the attacks of September 11th revived some of the embers of the flames that burn for true American heroes, but even those already seem to be fleeting; and it's hard not to be cynical about sound-bite-sized heroism produced merely for media consumption. Things like the hard facts coming to light about "hero" Private Jessica Lynch serve only to confirm our cynicism; and while we can respect the accomplishments of Tiger Woods, say, or Derek Jeter, athletic prowess and success isn't even close to the same thing as the storybook heroism of the Founding Fathers, or of Rosa Parks, or of Mohandas Gandhi.

And it's been this way for some time, which makes it even more difficult to believe that it's been twenty years since the release of The Right Stuff, to my mind one of the few films to evoke a sort of heroism that isn't offensively jingoistic or relegated to the sports pages. It wasn't a tremendous success in its time—the slightest bit of tarnish wasn't the thing during the first Reagan Administration, and in many respects the film was eclipsed by the Presidential ambitions of one of its principal characters, John Glenn—but with the years it's become more knowing, more mythic and more genuinely heroic than just about anything that we've seen since.

Based on Tom Wolfe's book of the same name, the film tells the story of America's first astronauts, the seven test pilots selected for the Mercury project—seven military men plucked from obscurity who were, before they flew a single space mission, hailed as the greatest pilots the world has yet known. Just as important is the story of their great forebear, Chuck Yeager, the unheralded Air Force test pilot who was the first to break the speed of sound. Sam Shepard plays Yeager as the last cowboy, whose actions speak louder than his words—he doesn't have to boast about anything, because he's just going to do it. The first part of the film concentrates on him, the mythic embodiment of the quality named in the title—the fortitude, the bravery, the lack of self-regard, the can-do spirit that characterizes heroes, that makes up the right stuff.

One thing that Yeager was not was a college man, and hence he didn't fit the profile for NASA's first round of astronauts. The process by which the Mercury seven were selected was downright comical, as portrayed here; one of the reasons that the heroism works in this film is that director Philip Kaufman isn't too evolved or serious to shy away from things like vomit jokes. Yes, you can have a juvenile sense of humor and still demonstrate grace under pressure.

Ed Harris plays John Glenn, about the straightest arrow imaginable, and he's well matched by his comrades, including Scott Glenn as Alan Shepherd, Fred Ward as a harried Gus Grissom, and smirking young Dennis Quaid as the impossibly cocky Gordon Cooper. Another of the virtues of the film is the attention and respect paid to the wives of the flying men—Barbara Hershey is every cowboy's dream girl as Glennis Yeager, and especially good here is Pamela Reed as Trudy Cooper, who knows that her Gordo is full of it, but still can't help but get suckered by his million-dollar smile.

Lots of this is played for comedy, and I can appreciate that some find that a little too discordant. Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum are a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of astronaut recruiters, for instance, and Donald Moffat as Lyndon Johnson is a figure of Texas-sized buffoonery. (Getting much the same treatment are Henry Luce and Werner von Braun.) And Kaufman as screenwriter has tried to bring as much of Wolfe's distinctive prose style to the screen as possible, which is admirable, but it means sometimes that his characters sound not like test pilots or their wives, but like New Journalists. At one point, for instance, Glenn describes himself as "a lonely beacon of restraint and self-sacrifice in a squall of car-crazies"—quite a turn of phrase, and one I would have loved to have thought of myself, but it doesn't sound like the John Glenn we've come to know, at all.

The movie is also very long, and occasionally heavy-handed with the symbolism—one figure is the embodiment of Death, and we know what it means when he pulls on the brim of his fedora. (I was reminded of the guys in Diner watching The Seventh Seal: "I've been to Atlantic City a hundred times, and I've never seen Death walking on the beach.") So I do understand if all of this is more than you can take.

But in truth, if it is, you're missing out. The level of craft here is extraordinarily high, not only from the enormous cast, but especially from the diligent and creative production team, who ably recapture both the possibility and the perils of the early 1960s—you'll agonize with Betty Grissom (the wonderful Veronica Cartwright) as she realizes that she won't get her backstage-at-the-White-House chat with Jackie, but you'll also feel the genuine peril of the heights of the Cold War, even if they're sent up in LBJ's bombastic language: "I for one do not intend to go to sleep by the light of a Communist moon."

This movie is so full to bursting with inventiveness that it does sometimes feel a little overdone, but so much of it is so terrific that it's easy to let it slide. It's not a film with a single hero, and keeping everyone straight can be a little difficult, especially if you didn't live through these years—toss in the fact that many of the names overlap (an actor named Glenn plays not Glenn but Shepherd; an actor named Shepard doesn't play Shepherd, he plays Yeager, and so on), and a good many people have just sort of thrown up their hands. But that's an awful shame for them, because the movie is able to re-invest what had become hackneyed stereotypes with energy and invention—you can see the truth in the Yeagers' marriage, for instance, when Chuck confesses to Glennis: "You know, I'm a fearless man, but I'm scared to death of you."

I recoil from the chauvinistic chants of "U.S.A.!" at sporting events, and our government's arrogant dismissal of the objections of other countries and the United Nations, and some of the more strident aspects of our foreign policy make me cringe; but I'm not ashamed to say that I just love this movie, even with, maybe even because of, its imperfections. And not that there's much competition out there—cf., The Bonfire of the Vanities—but it's also the best film yet made from the works of one of my favorite writers. And it's a big old popcorn-tossing good time. Which is more than enough for me, and should be for anyone, really.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: In a perfect world, we would all live in a movie shot by Caleb Deschanel. His extraordinarily beautiful photography seems only to have improved with the years—if it's slats of light raining down on the astronauts in their space suits, or haloes of smoke heralding a plane piloted by Yeager, or the sun dappling just right on the Coopers riding down the road in the California desert, it looks just gorgeous, a reality heightened by Deschanel's command over his technique. There's also a pretty fair blending of stock and newsreel footage with newly shot material; and it's all presented on this DVD with very little debris or interference. Who was the best cinematographer you ever saw?

Image Transfer Grade: A

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The dynamics on the 5.1 track are pretty extraordinary—the flight sequences were obviously where the sound editors could show off, but the whole movie is mixed with a tremendous amount of care to audio detail. The surround speakers get put through their paces here, and especially good are the cavernous sounds of the Mercury astronauts arriving at Lyndon Johnson's epic barbecue in Houston. A solid audio mix that pushes the outside of the envelope.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 46 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
13 Deleted Scenes
3 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Book Gatefold
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. scene-specific commentaries from cast and crew
  2. interactive timeline on the space program
  3. lists of cast and crew, and awards
Extras Review: Disc One holds the film and lists the cast and crew, as well as the numerous awards won by the film; but the real action for extras is on Disc Two.

Three new documentaries offer a good amount of illumination on the film. The first, Realizing The Right Stuff (21m:05s), features interview footage with director Philip Kaufman, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, and Tom Wolfe (in a magnificent checked suit), along with many members of the cast (Quaid, Ward, Harris, Reed, Cartwright, Goldblum, Shearer, Moffat, Hershey), Chuck Yeager his own self, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. There's lots of talk of casting, and about how Kaufman tailored the role of Yeager as written to Sam Shepard's laconic persona; given the many locations called for in the script, it's a credit to the production design team to learn that the whole movie was shot in northern California, in and around San Francisco and at Edwards Air Force Base. T-20 Years and Counting (11m:27s) focuses on post-production, especially on visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez, who worked his magic here in the days before CGI—there was lots of "throwing model airplanes off of buildings." The film came out just as Senator Glenn was running for president, which may well have contributed to the film's relatively poor performance at the box office; two decades of high regard for the film has taken some but not all of the sting out of that financial disappointment.

The Real Men with The Right Stuff (15m:30s) focuses on the Mercury astronauts themselves, and getting the most screen time here are Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra; it's full of great archival footage, both of the astronauts and of Yeager. John Glenn: American Hero (01h:26m:30s) was produced for PBS shortly after the Senator's return to space, in 1998—it traces his life from his childhood in rural Ohio, to dropping out of college days after Pearl Harbor to enlist, to marrying his childhood sweetheart and his early days as a test pilot. The Kennedys were instrumental in launching Glenn's political career—an injury put a quick end to his 1964 run for the Senate, and he campaigned actively for RFK in 1968. (He was elected, finally, in 1974.) The years in the Senate are glided over pretty rapidly—Glenn seems to have had no major legislative accomplishments, and the biggest black mark against him was having been one of the notorious Keating Five. A disproportionate amount of the documentary is devoted to Glenn's 1998 shuttle mission, at age 77—the scientific import of this is, despite Glenn's claims, dubious at best, and you can feel Dan Goldin, NASA director at the time, trying to regain some of the glory of the Mercury years: "John Glenn deserves a second flight. America needs heroes." But especially in light of the Columbia disaster, it's hard to endorse wholeheartedly the current state of the space program, and to see this mission as anything more than a victory lap for Glenn.

An interactive timeline features Levon Helm narrating a series of very brief clips (less than a minute, usually), from Alan Shepherd's first flight, in 1961, to the moon landing, to the Columbia, and on to 2012 and the plans for an orbital space plane. The thirteen deleted scenes (10m:54s) are similarly brief, and don't contribute much, other than cross-cutting between Donald Moffat as LBJ and a chimp. Given that, in the accompanying documentaries, the first cut of the film is reported to have been five hours long, it's a disappointment that more of what ended up on the editing room floor isn't in this set.

Similarly intriguing but also disappointing are the scene-specific commentary tracks. A collage of scenes (24m:28s) are offered, featuring two separate commentaries—the first is from ten members of the cast and Yeager, the second features the director, producers, cinematographer, composer and special effects supervisor. Twenty years after the fact, the movie seems still to hold a special place in the hearts of those who made it; at least one full-length commentary track would no doubt have been both informative and fun. Some of the best stuff here is about the Bologna Brothers, a commedia dell'arte troupe cast as the swarm of reporters forever plaguing the Mercury astronauts. Conspicuously absent from the extras package is new footage of either John Glenn or Sam Shepard.

Extras Grade: B

Final Comments

The extras package seems a little muted, but this is a great big rollicking terrific American movie, and this DVD release is a marked improvement over the flipper disc released in 1997. We're a proselytizing band, we devotees of The Right Stuff. Check out what all the fuss is about, and I'll bet you a stick of Beeman's that the movie will win you over. You can pay me back later.

Jon Danziger 2003-06-23