Chuck Yeager and the other “flyboys” of the Space Race wore no capes, carried no hammers, hid no secret identities. But writer-director Philip Kaufman’s classic adventure “The Right Stuff,” celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, leaves no room for doubt. These guys were superheroes.
Against the ironic humor of “Iron Man” or the turgid bleakness of “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Right Stuff,” adapted from the 1979 book by Tom Wolfe, appears positively quaint. Earnest, even puritanical, in tone, it’s infused with nostalgia for an age of crew cuts and terse farewells, when men were men and still had something to fight for.
In other words, it’s no less a fantasy than my unprintable daydreams about the young Dennis Quaid as pilot Gordon Cooper, clean-shaven and arrogant, sporting a shit-eating grin along with his tight white tee. Even Yeager (Sam Shepard), the least polished of the bunch, possesses the uncomplicated courage of a fictional character: a fellow “fighter jock” demands $150,000 to break the sound barrier, but Yeager streaks past Mach I for his paltry Air Force salary and a medium-rare steak. “Seven Americans,” a NASA spokesman introduces the men of the Mercury Project later in the film. “Gentlemen all.”
Though the forthright, locked-jaw machismo of Yeager, Cooper, Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), John Glenn (Ed Harris), and Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) resembles that of the Hollywood Western — tough homesteaders crossing the final frontier — a sense of the superhuman shadows the film, too. The NASA recruiters tasked with finding the candidates for Mercury (Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum) recognize that the first space travelers must live somewhere beyond the pale. The footage of potential choices they play for President Eisenhower and his coterie of advisers is a litany of daredevils: high-wire acts, blindfolded acrobats, racers escaping from burning cars. The pilot evaluation process, depicted in a brilliant, extended sequence, inflicts subtle tortures and humiliations that no cowboy would long brook. The Mercury Seven weren’t The Wild Bunch, in Kaufman’s view. They were the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
As the men swagger, the wives fret, and (I’m not being metaphorical here) a band of indigenous Australians sound a plaint on the didgeridoo, the old-fashioned mores wear thin. But what makes the film so remarkable is conservatism of another sort. From the opening montage, the Oscar-winning sound’s careful stitching of disparate elements creates a textural fanfare — the voiceover narration, the score’s electronic thrum, the archival rumble of engines, and finally the silence of an empty desert road — and the narrative takes pains to listen in on the grinding lower gears of midcentury ambition.
Tracing the passage of the Cold War with changes in cockpit architecture, military politics, and the slow burn of competition and camaraderie, Kaufman and company achieve the most heroic feat of all: to render the high-wire acts of history as processes always on the edge of disaster, “pushing the outside of the envelope,” as Yeager says, with no notion of what lay beyond. In this, the film’s seeming quaintness may yet have something to teach the purveyors of today’s slick superheroism. “The right stuff,” as Tom Wolfe had it, includes a modicum of patience.
“The Right Stuff: 30th Anniversary” is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Brothers.