The Right Stuff (1983)

Review

Fortuitous time for The Right Stuff to hit DVD, when the American space program is nearing rock bottom in the court of public opinion.

Based on Tom Wolfe’s novel (though heavily inspired by the truth), The Right Stuff follows the formative years of the space race, from 1947 to 1963, when it was us vs. the Russians. The film begins as we first punch through Mach 1 in experimental aircraft and ends with seventh and final Mercury astronaut blasting off.

Introducing our heroes: There’s John Glenn (Ed Harris), the Boy Scout do-gooder; the inseperable, troublemaking, womanizers Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward); and Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), the wisecracking loner. Behind the scenes is Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), the greatest pilot of them all and forced to sit out the space program for lack of a college degree. He’s a strangely tragic hero here (though Yeager’s mass media celebrity that has endured for half a century after makes it hard to feel much pity for him just because he didn’t go to space).

The Right Stuff is a film about victory, glory, and triumph in the face of the most disastrous of defeats. It is of course an invaluable history lesson about the space program, buttressed in popular culture only by Apollo 13 and the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. The Right Stuff takes us through the lows of the Mercury program — from countless disasters to Yuri Gagarin’s victory to Grissom’s ‘accidental’ sinking of his capsule on splashdown — to the highs — truly capturing the conflicting emotions when we finally made it into space (after all, in the end it would all lead to the escalation of the Cold War). The film lacks the grace and polish of its contemporaries: Thus director Philip Kaufman (Quills) is forced to make do with archival footage and focus on his characters instead of lavish effects. At three hours long, it’s one of the fastest-paced epics ever made.

The new DVD is a two-disc affair with plenty of good extras onboard. Scene-specific commentaries from the cast, crew, and Yeager himself pepper the second disc, and featurette documentaries with all of them are also available (even Tom Wolfe makes an appearance). There’s also a 90-minute PBS documentary about John Glenn and an interactive feature detailing America’s history with the space program from 1961 to Columbia’s final flight in 2003 (and beyond!). Finally, 13 additional scenes (lacking any commentary and lasting about 10 minutes) add a little randomness to the film.