The Right Stuff (1983) – Philip Kaufman

“There was a demon that lived in the air…”

I love a good epic film, and this film, The Right Stuff, is wonderfully so, based on Tom Wolfe’s book chronicling the launch of the space program, the training, the disasters, and the 7 brave men chosen to become Mercury astronauts.

Boasting an all-star cast, the film helps to give one a look at the heady days of the burgeoning field of space exploration as we tried to discover the limits not only of ourselves but the confines of the small planet we live on.

It’s hard not to love a movie with this amazing cast, all of them are welcome on my screen any time I see them… Ed Harris takes on the role of John Glenn, Sam Shepard plays the legendary Chuck Yeager, Scott Glenn is Alan Shepard, Dennis Quaid is Gordo Copper, Fred Ward – Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Scott Paulin – Deke Slayton, Charles Frank – Scott Carpenter, and one of our favorites, Lance Henriksen as Wally Schirra. The supporting cast includes Barbara Hershey, Donald Moffat, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer, Kathy Baker, Veronica Cartwright and Emily and Zooey’s equally talented mother Mary Jo Deschanel.


These actors, and those around them, not only bring the era to life, but the men they inhabit. Kaufman, who adapted the book for the screen, gives us a film with an almost documentary feel, the camera is objective, looking in on every part of the time and the lives of these men and their family without judgment, and like in life there are moments of joy, tragedy, hope, love,  tears and laughter.

The movie moves from Yeager’s desire to be the fastest man alive, to the space race that saw the Russians putting a man in orbit first. There are personal struggles, political battles, glitches from exploding rockets to Grissom’s ill-fated landing with a blown hatch. It’s all here, in a movie that busts the three-hour mark, but moves like a Saturn V rocket.

The film won four Academy awards, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Sound, Best Editing and Best Music featuring an engrossing score by Bill Conti. It was also nominated for Best Supporting (Sam Shepard), Best Art and Set Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Picture.

I think one of the things I like most about this film is that it shows our determination, our capacity for hope and the ability to work on something bigger than ourselves. Yes, the space race was motivated by politics, they couldn’t have a “Red Moon”, but in the end, I don’t think that mattered to the people who worked on it, who flew the planes and the rockets, who knew the risk every time they climbed atop one of those rockets, well aware that they were sitting on thousands of pounds of explosives, and yet strapped themselves in any way.

As Tom Hanks says as Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, And it’s not a miracle, we just decided to go.

Now I feel the need to revisit the wonderful HBO series From The Earth To The Moon…

The Right Stuff, a fantastic piece of storytelling and a great look inside the early days of space exploration.


See how the future began…

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