Twitter Plot Summary: The origins of the United States space programme and the men who were chosen for the task.
The 1950s and 1960s were a time of exceptional courage and expedition, the human race constantly pushing forward, wanting to explore the very limits of human endurance and to achieve new highs – in this case literally – for the sake of exploration and nothing more. Well, besides getting one over on the Russians as and where possible.
This is not a film that focuses on the fighting amongst the test pilots chosen for the Mercury missions – other than a brief moment of conflict they are a united force against the suits and scientists who have a different opinion as to how the mission should proceed. Their home lives are explored as their wives and families fear for their safety. It’s possible to argue that this is a very blinkered view of a woman’s existence as they do little else but adhere to the tenets of the Bechdel Test, but bear in mind that this was 1950s/60s America for one, a world in which racial intolerance was just one of many issues let alone the release of women from the domestic lifestyle. Still it’s easy to empathise with them – their husbands have a more than casual attitude towards death and the exploration of the women’s coping mechanisms for this lifestyle is well handled.
The perils of being a test pilot at that time are made abundantly clear from the off – there are two funerals for deceased pilots within the opening half an hour. The film is book-ended by appearances from test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), constantly pushing boundaries at the uppermost levels of human ability despite his lack of involvement in the space programme.
The sheer exhilaration of exploration is captured through Philip Kaufman’s occasionally breathless direction, balancing the needs of the emotional core of the film with the adventure aspects near perfectly, never feeling the urge to step too far away from the action or get in so close you can’t see anything.
Then there’s the cast, a huge number of famous faces ranging from a young Jeff Goldblum to some impressive central performances from Dennis Quaid, Dennis Quaid’s epic grin, Ed Harris, Ed Harris’ piercing blue eyes, and notable mentions also for Fred Ward, Scott Glenn and Lance Henriksen. In terms of the pilot’s wives, Barbara Hershey and Veronica Cartwright are on top form. You’d be hard pressed to see either of them provide a bad performance in any of their back catalogues, and they more than hold their own against the alpha male antics of the test pilots.
There are many films that are deserving of the attention bestowed upon them, and for various reasons The Right Stuff should be lauded as one of cinema’s finest offerings. It’s not a lean film by any stretch, clocking in at just over 3 hours, but as an indication of its quality the time simply flies by. To maintain such interest in a story for that period of time is an art form in itself, and for this and many other reasons The Right Stuff should rightly be considered a classic.