“And I died in my boots like a pioneer
With the whole wide sky above me.”
—Stephen Vincent Benet, A Ballad of William Sycamore
Forty-five years ago, the Apollo 11 crew landed on Earth’s moon, and one small step became a landmark event that gave the United States an insurmountable lead in the space race and drew hundreds of millions of people together for a triumphant moment amid the Vietnam War and in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. This historic occurrence, which was almost certainly not faked, garners much media attention on its anniversaries, particularly years ending in zero or five, and provides an always welcome opportunity to savor Neil Armstrong’s succinct touchdown statement and check in to see if “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins are still alive.
Less celebrated are the pioneering test pilots who risked—and in many cases sacrificed—their lives in pursuit of the sound barrier and the ultimate launch into space. A great American film based on a great American book about a great American story, Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff conjures the all-in spirit of men like Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield, as well as others who made less-fortunate flights in the name of progress. Yet the achievements of these ground-breaking men, whom Yeager (Sam Shepard) refers to in the film as “lab rabbits,” were nearly excised in the transfer of book to movie.
Original screenwriter William Goldman (All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride) jettisoned Yeager and much of the test pilot program for his draft, focusing instead on the Mercury Seven. The Mercury Seven also figure heavily in Tom Wolfe’s book and Kaufman’s version, where the hand-chosen astronauts, picked in part for their public appeal, contrast sharply with the boundary-pushing Air Force test pilots, who live in relative anonymity.
“There was a demon that lived in the air,” goes the first line of the film, the opening of which transports us from the sky to the funeral of a nameless test pilot. We are soon with Yeager in a tavern near Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert; a young woman notes a series of pilots’ photos on the wall behind the bar and asks what one has to do to get his picture posted.
“You have to die, sweetie,” is the bartender’s reply.
Yeager and the test program occupy nearly the first third of Kaufman’s sprawling, glorious, mess of a film. Exhaustive, often brilliant and occasionally exhausting, The Right Stuff is bursting with ideas and details, and Kaufman made the right choice in retaining the test pilots as the cornerstone of the story; Yeager’s historic breaking of the sound barrier gets its cinematic due in an exhilarating bit of filmmaking.
Kaufman revisits Yeager and the Edwards AFB crew as The Right Stuff shifts its focus to the seven pilots selected as astronauts for the first manned flights into space: Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gus “Don’t Call Me Virgil” Grissom (Fred Ward), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin).
By its very nature, The Right Stuff eventually feels weighty and episodic over its three-hour-plus running time—something of a Project Mercury’s Greatest Hits. But Kaufman, working from his own witty screenplay and supported by an able cast and the master cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, mostly keeps this epic from bursting under its own mass.
For many reasons, the collective giant leap made by Yeager and other pilots receives less attention than the likewise seismic step taken by Armstrong et al. nearly a half century ago and barely two decades after Yeager broke the sound barrier. But in The Right Stuff, that leap resonates, in part because Kaufman slyly acknowledges the test pilots’ general lack of recognition.
Late in the film, reporters harass Cooper, asking him to name the greatest pilot he ever saw. Typically outspoken, Cooper reflects for a moment, then responds, “Some of them are still out there … puttin’ their hides out on the line, hangin’ it out over the edge, pushin’ back the outside of that envelope and haulin’ it back in.”
He mentions the pictures of the fallen pilots on the wall in the bar at Edwards, and is about to name Yeager as the best pilot, a man who had The Right Stuff, when the hissing, impatient press cut him off and push for an answer. Sound-bite aware and image-conscious in the emerging age of viral media, he flashes a smile and says himself.
No one who is willing to ride a rocket into space lacks The Right Stuff. But The Right Stuff distinguishes the pioneers who broke the trail from the household names who paved it, and it beautifully evokes the desire of those men to challenge notions thought impossible, to literally and metaphorically reach for the sky in the face of the unknown.