1983: The Right Stuff
Written and Directed by Philip Kaufman
“I tell you, we got two categories of pilots around here. We got your prime pilots that get all the hot planes, and we got your pud-knockers who dream about getting the hot planes. Now what are you two pud-knockers gonna have?”
You never love something quite the way you do than when you’re a kid. You get entirely irrational about it, overlooking any flaws, ignoring other things that may be just as good because, well, what could possibly be as good as the thing you love? Logic, rationality, neither one enters into it. And so it was in 1983 that I absolutely hated The Right Stuff because it was getting better reviews than Return of the Jedi.
It didn’t matter that I hadn’t actually seen The Right Stuff. That someone would dare place it above the grand finale of the Star Wars saga was pure anathema. I begrudged it every Oscar nomination it got except Best Picture; I knew the Academy had it in for George Lucas, and that was merely an expected part of the conspiracy. And come Oscar night, in every category in which it was in competition with Jedi, it won, further fueling my adolescent rage. Fools! Unbelievers!
Then The Right Stuff went into rotation on HBO and it became clear how unbelievably narrow-minded I was being. Having grown up in the shadow of the Apollo program and just an hour away from Cape Canaveral, I’d always had a fascination with our space efforts. But The Right Stuff is what helped kick it over into full-blown admiration. What Philip Kaufman does here is nothing short of myth-making, turning the Mercury astronauts into a pantheon atop fiery Olympuses. At the same time though, Kaufman never loses sight of the humanity here. In many ways, these were simply men who were in the right place at the right time, and often the pressure of competing with the Soviets nearly becomes too much. These aren’t perfect, unerring heroes. And that makes them all the more heroic for taking the risks they took.
Yet Kaufman’s greatest reverence is reserved for the one who never actually made it into space, Chuck Yeager, his achievements ignored by NASA because he didn’t graduate from college. Late in the film, Kaufman juxtaposes a lavish celebration held for the Mercury 7 with Yeager quietly, anonymously doing what he always did: pushing the envelope. He seemingly wills his test plane to the edge of space, catching a brief glimpse of the stars, while at the same time the Mercury 7 exchange looks acknowledging their good fortune, but which could also be seen as recognizing someone somewhere has joined their ranks. After Yeager’s plane crashes and he walks away from the accident, a member of the rescue team sees him and asks, “Is that a man?” To which Yeager’s friend, also on the team, replies, “You’re damn right it is.” Gordon Cooper might get the last flight in the film, but Yeager’s already taken the curtain call.
The overriding feeling I get from the film is one of nostalgia for a time I never actually lived through. For all the Cold War tension and civil unrest, it was a time when we looked to the skies in wonder, when men who seemed to have leaped straight from the comic books soared into the heavens on a grand adventure. There was a promise of a future that never came to be, one of moon bases and flying cars and jet packs. Science fiction was becoming science fact, and there are times I wish I’d been born maybe a decade sooner so I could have actually experienced it firsthand. As stirring as the news footage and depictions are, I can only imagine what it must have been like seeing it all unfold in person. The space shuttle just didn’t compare. Nor did Return of the Jedi. But don’t tell 14-year old me that.