Writer-director Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff” is a rousing adaptation of author Tom Wolfe’s eponymous non-fiction bestseller about the beginning of America’s space program. Starring Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Veronica Cartwright, Dennis Quaid, Pamela Reed, Mary Jo Deschanel, and Lance Henriksen, “The Right Stuff” dramatizes how a top secret military aircraft evaluation project evolved into the highly publicized manned space endeavor named Project Mercury.
Set between Air Force Capt. Chuck Yeager’s (Shepard) “breaking of the sound barrier” in October 1947 and astronaut Gordon Cooper’s (Quaid) “Faith 7” Mercury mission in May 1963, “The Right Stuff” is an epic film that successfully blends historical drama, fantastic special effects, and great performances. And although “The Right Stuff” wasn’t a box office success – it only earned $21.1 million, which was less than its $27 million budget – it was widely hailed as “best movie of the year” by many critics, including Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
“The Right Stuff” covers a lot of ground in its 192 minutes of running time, starting with the hush-hush (and deadly) flight testing of experimental aircraft such as the Bell X-1 rocket plane. The Cold War between the U.S. and its erstwhile World War II ally, the Soviet Union, has just begun, and both countries are developing new military aircraft that can fly higher and faster than those used during the war.
Girl at Pancho’s: I just noticed that a fancy pilot like Slick over there doesn’t have his picture on your wall. What do you have to do to get your picture up there anyway?
Pancho Barnes: You have to die, sweetie.
But testing the new jets is a deadly proposition. The attrition rate among Air Force pilots is frighteningly high – “62 pilots in the last 32 weeks,” says an Air Force officer at Pancho Barnes’ bar near Edwards Air Force Base – and even experienced engineers doubt that the “sound barrier” can be broken. Test piloting is so dangerous that when the Air Force asks civilian pilot Slim Goodlin (William Russ) to fly the X-1, Goodlin demands $150,000.
Fortunately for the Air Force, a laconic war hero named Chuck Yeager volunteers to fly the X-1. Yeager, who proved he had the “right stuff” when he shot down five German fighters over Europe, flies the dart shaped “Glamorous Glynis” on man’s first supersonic flight even though he has several broken ribs as a result of a horse riding accident.
“The Right Stuff” goes on to show how a small group of military pilots assigned to Edwards AFB eventually became the Mercury Seven – America’s original astronauts. It also explores the political aftershocks of the Soviets’ early victories in the “space race,” starting with the 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth – Sputnik – and culminating with Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space, only weeks ahead of astronaut Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn).
Stung by these setbacks, the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations press on with Project Mercury, a series of seven suborbital and orbital flights in one-man capsules. Initially, Project Mercury is merely America’s response to the Soviets’ Vostok flights. But after Shepard’s successful Freedom 7 suborbital flight (May 15, 1961), it morphs into the first stepping stone to the more ambitious goal of sending astronauts to the Moon and returning them safely to Earth.
Kaufman’s movie also examines the relationships between the highly competitive pilots/astronauts and their wives. From Chuck Yeager’s adventurous horseback races with his wife Glynis (Barbara Hershey) to John Glenn’s staunch support for his wife Annie (Mary Jo Deschanel), the emotional bonds that tie America’s hotshot aviators to their spouses gives “The Right Stuff” the perfect touch of balance between the technological/adventure elements of “The Right Stuff” and the human interest ones.
Although Kaufman’s screenplay takes quite a few liberties with the history of the astronauts and makes Senator (later Vice President) Lyndon B. Johnson (Donald Moffat) more of a comic figure than he was in reality, “The Right Stuff” clearly deserves the accolades it has earned. Though it was a box office flop, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards:
- Best Picture (did not win)
- Best Cinematography (did not win)
- Best Supporting Actor – Sam Shepard (did not win)
- Best Art Direction/Set Design (did not win)
- Best Editing (won)
- Best Original Score – Bill Conti (won)
- Best Sound Effects Editing (won)
- Best Sound (won)
Although “The Right Stuff” may seem to be a movie that will only appeal to aviation and history buffs, it is not. Kaufman’s best film is a riveting drama about an era in American history full of the pioneering spirit and can-do attitude that helped the nation win World War II, face off against Communism, and began humanity’s voyages to the Moon – and beyond.
The 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray
Warner Bros. has released “The Right Stuff” on DVD and Blu-ray in two separate editions: a two-DVD 20th Anniversary set in 2003, which was followed 10 years later by the 30th Anniversary Blu-ray (BD)/DVD Digibook edition.
Though both editions are roughly similar because they share most of the extra features and lack audio commentary on the feature film, the 30th Anniversary BD edition is the most impressive.
Not only does the BD edition present Kaufman’s magnificent film in pristine 1080p high definition video and a stunning Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix, but it comes in a nifty Digibook package. This includes a 40-page booklet with behind-the-scenes production notes, a historical timeline of events, and selected stills from “The Right Stuff.”
- Codec: MPEG-4 AVC (22.50 Mbps)
- Resolution: 1080p
- Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
- Original aspect ratio: 1.85:1
- English: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (48kHz, 16-bit)
- French: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
- German: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
- Italian: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
- Spanish: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
- Spanish: Dolby Digital Mono
- Portuguese: Dolby Digital Mono
- Japanese: Dolby Digital Mono
Note: Japanese is hidden
- English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German SDH, Italian SDH
- 50GB Blu-ray Disc
- Two-disc set (1 BD, 1 DVD)
- Region free
- Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
- Studio: Warner Home Video
- DVD Release Date: November 5, 2013
- Run Time: 193 minutes