The Right Stuff (1983), Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed portrait of the original NASA astronauts, is *the* American epic of the last great frontier and a genuinely romantic take on the first generation of space cowboys. In fact, we know that Kaufman’s heart lays with test pilot cowboy Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard as a man who rides horses when he’s not punching a hole through the sound barrier.
The three-hour-plus film, narrated by Levon Helm in a storyteller’s drawl as if recounting a myth, follows the story of the race to claim the skies from the competitive culture of the test pilots in New Mexico to the rush to beat the Soviets to the moon after they put the first man in space. The shift in national priorities (“You know what makes those ships go? Funding!”) and public attention left Yeager and the jet cowboys behind and gave us new American heroes: the astronauts. And while Kaufman clearly reveres Yeager, he celebrates the courage and the commitment of the original astronauts and gives them their own mythic resonance.
But what else sets The Right Stuff apart is Kaufman’s decision to favor the subjective over the objective when it comes to presenting the pioneering flights and space shots. It’s the opposite of 2001, which went for a clinically precise presentation of its space footage effects—a documentary of Kubrick’s imagined future—and instead takes an impressionistic approach to capture the wonder and power of flying out of the atmosphere or looking back from space for the first time. Experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson helped create those effects and they are beautiful.
Playwright Shepard made a name for himself as an actor playing the laconic, leathery Yeager (and helped turn the then-unknown pioneer into a revered American hero) and Ed Harris broke out with his portrayal of the charismatic boy scout of an officer John Glenn, but they are merely two excellent performances in a great cast that includes Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, and Lance Henriksen (the astronauts), Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Mary Jo Deschanel, and Kathy Baker (the wives), Barbara Hershey, and Kim Stanley. Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer provide a whimsical through line as Mutt and Jeff recruiters and Donald Moffat is Lyndon B. Johnson.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it won four Oscars, for film editing, Bill Conti’s score, sound, and sound effects editing.
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The Right Stuff (30th Anniversary Edition) [Blu-ray]
The Right Stuff (Two-Disc Special Edition) [DVD]
The film was remastered for the 30th Anniversary Blu-ray edition, which includes a bonus DVD with the supplements (taken from the previous DVD special edition): the feature length documentary “John Glenn: American Hero, the featurettes “Realizing the Right Stuff” and “T-20 Years and Counting” (on the production), and “The Real Men With The Right Stuff,” (on the real life astronauts), 13 deleted scenes, an interactive space exploration timeline with archival NASA footage, and “The Journey and the Mission,” which amounts to 24 minutes of intermittently interesting, not-very-scene-specific commentary, with one track carried by a dozen or so of the stars (plus Chuck Yeager), and other with director Phil Kaufman, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, composer Bill Conti, and visual effects supervisor Gary Guterrez. The Blu-ray book package has 40 pages of notes and photos and a letter from Philip Kaufman.