Saturday 15 June 2024

The Right Stuff (1983)


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“The Right Stuff” is the best movie about test pilots and the early space program that I know of. Hand down.

At Edwards Air Force Base in the high Californian desert, the USAF are testing experimental planes and at the local bar the wall is covered with pictures of dead test pilots. In 1947 the object is to break the sound barrier and one of the, still alive, pilots, Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is making the attempt, and succeeds where others have failed, in the X-1 plane.

In 1953 Gordo Cooper, Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton (Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward and Scott Paulin) are new pilots at Edwards, a place where pilots like Chuck Yeager are still dangerously pushing the envelope of what fighter planes can do while their wives are powerless and nervous bystanders.

The Russian Sputnik scare ignites a frantic quest to send Americans into space and we follow how pilots, like the three above, are gathered from different branches, but also the scramble itself to place humans into space. Rockets that explode, arguments on whether a space capsule is a remote-controlled container, or a spaceship controlled by an astronaut as well as the political jockeying around the space program. The focus, however, remains with the seven astronauts who now include John Glenn (Ed Harris who 15 years later would return to the space program in his amazing portrayal of Gene Kranz), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Walter Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank).

I am a bit of a space nerd and I love documentaries, book, exhibitions, you name it, about space and spaceflight. I have visited the Kennedy Space Centre and watched the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket. My science project in high school was on rockets and includes material on ESA’s Ariane 5 rocket. Behind me, as I write this, I have a Sky-Watcher telescope capable of watching the rings of Saturn and the stripes of Jupiter. For me, watching an undoubtably heroic epic like “The Right Stuff” is much less about macho-men with jet fuel for blood, but all about how many details it gets right and “The Right Stuff” is usually very close though sometimes disappointingly far off the mark.

The feel of the movie is that of a dramatized documentary. There is some real footage, authentic characters and anecdotes. It feels very real and for a space buff like me, this is awesome. Gus Grissom gets some poor treatment by the screenwriters, especially in the affair of the hatch opening prematurely on his flight, though the biggest clash with reality is when the movie’s need to created heroism converts, albeit dangerous, routine into spur of the moment reckless heroism. The Chuck Yeager substory suffers substantially from that and this is a bit surprising since he was in fact consultant on the movie and even gets a cameo in the bar scenes.

Jarring as these details are, it does not take away the sense of adventure here, of something big. There is a very basic appeal here in that this is fundamentally a very good story, delivered very well. I watched the Disney tv-series on “The Right Stuff” and despite being much longer and likely more correct, it never manages to inspire as the original movie did.

I have seen the Mercury capsule, one of those fished out after splashdown, and in the rocket garden of Kennedy there are copies of both the Redstone and the Atlas rockets. To think that people climbed into this and sat on top of that is just mindboggling.

But then, if these seven astronauts were only half of what they were presented as in the movie, it goes a long way to explain why they did it. I suppose they had the right stuff. Or were completely mad.

Either way, this will likely be my suggestion for Best Movie of 1983.




  1. This is my favorite movie of this year, hands down. Admittedly, I'm a NASA nerd, so it's not a surprise, but damn this is good all the way through, and it never feels boring despite its length.

    1. It very much helps that it is fundamentally a good story.
      I am not terribly happy with my review, it comes through as more negative than I intended. I guess it is so good a movie that I wished it was true all the way through.

  2. I love this one too. Can’t wait for a rewatch. I think it’s awesome that you do astronomy!

    My site is down again. I tried this am and it will take up to 48 hours to “repopulate” whatever that it is:

    1. I am sorry to hear that. It is not the first time your site has had technical problems. Must be frustrating.
      There was a short period in my youth where i seriously considered a career in space science. In the end it became Earth science, but it is still a hobby of mine.