May 02, 2013

Celebrating Yuri's Night With THE RIGHT STUFF

"Look, the man has got to go."
I've already written at length about my love of space exploration and particularly the golden age of NASA.  I remember frequent Space Shuttle missions throughout my childhood, as well as the launch of the Hubble telescope, the death of Mir, and the slow construction of the International Space Station.  You have no idea how disappointed I was to learn that the Shuttle Endeavour drove through the streets of Los Angeles (and sat parked two blocks away from my old apartment) after I'd already left town, although I'm really hoping to visit the shuttle that's currently residing in New York.  For a life long Star Trek fan like me, it's pretty much a dream come true to stand in the presence of an actual spacecraft named Enterprise.

At the same time, I feel like I should have a better working knowledge of the earlier days of the U.S. space program.  While Apollo 13 is one of my favorite space movies of all time, the closest thing to a book on NASA I've ever read is Homer Hickham's Rocket Boys, which became October Sky starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Cooper.  While my reading habits tend to err on the side of fiction, it seems unfathomable to me that I didn't at least accidentally stumble onto Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, detailing the trials and ultimate successes (fifty year spoilers!) of the original Mercury 7 astronauts.  I'll have to correct that mistake and pick up the book next year, when I have time to read books again.

April 12th was Yuri's Night*, commemorating 52 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in outer space.  I felt it was only appropriate to watch something spacey in tribute and was immediately drawn to The Right Stuff after it was suggested by reader Jason Michelitch, although I will admit that the three hour running time certainly gave me pause.  I considered a few other options like Battle Beyond The Stars and Robinson Crusoe On Mars, but ultimately decided to keep them on the back burner in favor of the true story of Gagarin's American competition.  It was the right choice.

It's an impressive cast to say the least, with Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, and Lance Henriksen as the pilots turned astronauts, not to mention Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum in amusing supporting roles as the guys who recruit them while keeping tabs on their Soviet counterparts.  Barbara Hershey, Kathy Baker, Veronica Cartwright and Pamela Reed also have nice turns as the various wives of the pilots, each getting a few moments to really shine.

In a way this is the polar opposite of Apollo 13, which is essentially a story about a group of nerds out-thinking a problem from thousands of miles away.  The Mercury 7 astronauts (aside from maybe Glenn) were the guys who probably beat up those nerds in high school.  Today most astronauts are scientists and engineers who carry out awesome experiments in orbit.  The original astronauts were brash, hotshot pilots, the kind of swaggering cowboys that typified the American image after World War II.  NASA was looking for heroes, men that the American people could idolize and aspire to.  Ed Harris's John Glenn is seemingly the first to realize that they entire Mercury program is just as much about national image as it is about actually accomplishing spaceflight.  That idea is dramatically reinforced by the flight of Gus Grissom, who experienced serious problems upon re-entry and splashdown.  The hatch to his capsule unexpectedly blew and he had to be unceremoniously fished out of the water as the capsule itself sank to the ocean floor.  Grissom claimed there was a technical malfunction that caused the hatch to blow, while his superiors at NASA felt the cocky Grissom simply panicked and blew the door.  Either way it didn't look good for the program, so he never got the star treatment that Glenn received.  This leads to a really wonderful scene between Ward and Cartwright, who's so busy lamenting the fact that she didn't get to meet Jackie Kennedy that she fails to notice the emotional toll it's taking on her husband.  It's some of the best work of Ward's career by far, showcasing the inner fragility of this seemingly fearless daredevil.  Young Dennis Quaid is a blast as the carefree class clown and all of his scenes with Ward and Scott Glenn are tons of fun, particularly Glenn's obsession with fake astronaut Jose Jimenez of the Ed Sullivan Show.

The film's structure is the thing that baffled me most, and also the reason I'm really curious to read the book.  Some characters, like John Glenn and Quaid's Gordon Cooper get plenty of time and attention paid to their family lives, while poor Lance Henriksen is left hanging around like so much wallpaper.  At the same time, it feels like there's a lot of time spent on the selection process and training of the Mercury 7, but the actual flights pass by in a blur.  Even more bizarre is the constant presence of Sam Shepard as test pilot Chuck Yeager.  The film starts with Yeager breaking the sound barrier, leading pilots like Cooper and Grissom on a pilgrimage to Edwards Air Force Base where they'd eventually be recruited by NASA.  When the suits do come calling, Yeager passes on the chance to go into space, but that doesn't stop the movie from constantly cutting back to show him moping around Edwards.  At the end there's a long scene where Yeager basically steals a test jet and loses control of the craft, crashing the thing in the desert.  As the scene played out I suddenly realized I wasn't sure if Yeager was still alive or not and thought they were about to justify all of his screen time with some sort of elegant, poetic death scene, but Yeager walks away from the crash mostly unharmed.  (Turns out he is very much alive and has a cameo in the movie.)  Sam Shepard is fantastic, as always, but after the first half hour his relevance to the story is debatable at best.  Hell, you probably could have cut the opening sound barrier sequence in its entirety without losing any crucial element of the story.  In a movie that crosses the three hour mark I have to wonder why Kaufman was so determined to shoehorn Yeager into the film in the first place.  I have to assume that his material was so compelling and integral to the success of the book that the filmmakers felt they simply couldn't make a movie called The Right Stuff without giving Yeager a prominent role.  Casting Shepard was certainly a smart move, but unfortunately there just isn't a whole lot for him to actually do.

Despite it's epic length, The Right Stuff is pretty cool, especially for a space nerd like me, although I think I prefer Apollo 13.  Those guys trying to fit a square peg in a round hole...those are more my people.  But both films reinforce my ultimate disappointment with the lack legitimate exploration in our modern space program.  I imagine that it must have been incredible thrilling to live through the Mercury and Apollo programs and if I had been a kid back then, I'd expect us to be living on fucking Mars by now.  The fact that we haven't even bothered to return to the moon in over 40 years feels downright inexcusable.  It's time to go back into space.  Hell, it's past time.  Eventually there's going to be another space race and if we're lucky we'll find astronauts as badass as the Mercury seven to lead the charge.

Hopefully I'll be alive to see it.

*Sweet Jeebus I'm behind on reviews.

Title: The Right Stuff
Director: Phillip Kaufman
Starring: Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Lance Henriksen, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Jeff Goldblum, Donald Moffat
Year Of Release: 1983
Viewing Method: DVD

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