The Golden Age of Space: 30 Years After The Right Stuff

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers/The Ladd Company

The Golden Age of Space Exploration: 30 Years After The Right Stuff

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

For most of us over the age of 40 or 50, we think of the movies of early and middle 1980s as a hodgepodge of commercially popular formulas, popular faces, and the rise of a patently easy-money approach to filmmaking. For one, 1983 saw an uptick in box office success for actors who had made the migration from TV to film via the enormously popular Saturday Night Live (Dan Akroyd, Eddie Murphy, Chevy Chase), springing into big screen vehicles custom-scripted for their comedic styles—Trading Places and National Lampoon’s Vacation being two of the best known.

That same year saw the rapid ascension of the Brat Pack—then, and now, an infamously misbehaved gaggle of young actors who (so it seemed) could make money for the studios simply by showing up on the set, even if the movie-making ranged from fair-to-middling to mediocre. Still, among this glut of youth movies there were genuine gems: Risky Business, starring Tom Cruise, Rebecca DeMornay and Bronson Pinchot; and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, adapted from the novel by S.E. Hinton, which deployed a galaxy of young actors destined for greater fame—Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Ralph Macchio, Diane Lane and (again) Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise even made a third appearance that year in All The Right Moves, a likeable tale of a talented, but stubbornly self-centered high school football player whose personality pits him against an equally willful, domineering coach.

Critically speaking, very little of this tsunami of low-ball comedy, slob humor and coming-of-age storytelling had an impact, though there is the enduring cultural legacy of so many great movie laugh lines, and the memory of all those Rayban sunglasses and Members Only jackets.

Which is why it seems strange now to recall that 1983 also saw the release of the much-anticipated film version of The Right Stuff, adapted from the landmark book by Tom Wolfe which tells—in novelistic language and dazzling style—the story of the early days of the American space program, from the test pilots who flew high-risk missions inside prototype planes, to the original seven Navy, Air Force, Marine and Army aviators who made those first tentative but audacious steps into the space age.

The film was written and directed by Phillip Kaufman, and like Wolfe’s book, follows closely the personal story of military test pilots, their wives, and those aviators' generally thankless job in the early Cold War years of exploring the limits and capabilities of experimental aircraft—many of the machines dangerous and unpredictable—in Spartan conditions and in remote places like Edwards Air Force Base in California. The fact-based story’s real-life protagonists include John Glenn (played by Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper (played by Dennis Quaid), Alan Shepherd (played by Scott Glenn), Gus Grissom (played by Fred Ward) and Chuck Yeager (played by Sam Shepard).

At a time when a common critical complaint was Hollywood’s lack of fidelity to a given script’s literary source (examples of well-made movies generally disliked in those days by "book people" include Stephen King’s The Shining (director: Stanley Kubrick), Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (director: Milos Foreman) and even Coppola’s loose interpretation of Hinton’s The Outsiders, The Right Stuff was regarded a smashing success among Wolfe’s followers, and the film was well-received even by many of his detractors.

Indeed, some film historians point out that Kaufman was the ideal agent to handle the colorful tapestry of Tom Wolfe’s sometimes over-the-top storytelling style, as well as Wolfe’s wry insights into the complex, testosterone-driven world of aviators. Having won awards shortly after college, primarily for his 1964 film Goldstein, Kaufman had found success as a screenwriter with The Wanderers (which he also directed) and The Outlaw Josie Wales. Much later, he was also a frequent collaborator with George Lucas, including script-writing credits for Raiders of the Lost Ark and some of the subsequent sequels.

In a little known bit of Hollywood sci-fi trivia, it was Kaufman—a dedicated fan of the American space program—who had first explored the idea of a Star Trek motion picture long before other Hollywood writers and producers had accepted the big-screen marketability of the short-lived TV series. Kaufman was already deeply into the script development of the first Star Trek movie for Paramount when word began to leak out in the film press that a young George Lucas was working on a quirky, matinee-adventure-laser-swashbuckler called Star Wars for 20th Century Fox. Believing sci-fi was a dying film genre, and already stung by heavy losses from early 70s box office misfires, like Silent Running, Paramount’s top brass unceremoniously pulled the plug on Kaufman’s Star Trek project, unable to imagine the American movie audience having interest in one sci-fi film in a single year, much less two the same summer. Only after the record-breaking box office success of Star Wars in 1977 did Paramount agree to reboot the idea of a Star Trek movie, this time without Kaufman.

In the meantime, Wolfe had taken his series of long essays—originally serialized in Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1970s—and merged them neatly into a single volume. In 1979, as sales of Wolfe’s novelistic non-fiction masterpiece The Right Stuff began to accelerate, the idea of a film version began to gather momentum, and Kaufman was in the right place at that moment.

The movie, like the book, takes us into the innermost circle of those military men—and their often stoic and enduring spouses—who, simply because it was their job, put themselves at the greatest possible risk to ensure that a post-war United States might engage not only in a kind of single combat against the Soviet Union, but that America could rightly claim its first place prize in what amounted to the most audacious challenge ever attempted in human history. It is also the story of ego—that of the aviators, the engineers, the bureaucrats, the politicians, the reporters—but especially those pilots who, so brash and self-confidant among their peers, became shy and painfully awkward when thrust into the special limelight the world invented for the astronaut.

Starting with those pilots in the desert of California, the film makes Yeager the recurring thread. In real life Yeager did not make the cut for consideration for the astronaut program since NASA and the top brass in Washington wanted only college-educated, academy material. But Yeager—in the book as well as the film—remains the constant by which all pilots secretly measure their skill and their mettle. Yeager had been the man—flying in the experimental X-1—who had broken the sound barrier in 1947, and, through either talent or pure luck, had survived the 1950s despite the grim percentages facing the pilots of experimental aircraft. His legendary status grew among the ranks of younger pilots, many of whom openly gunned to break Yeager’s frequent record-setting achievements. Cooper, Grissom and other Army aviators uprooted their wives and kids to move closer to the action. There, with their wives making the best of the horrid housing under the constant shrill sounds of military jets overhead (and with the possibility that death might come knocking on any day), the alpha-male pilots wait their turn, huddling after-hours over beer and Scotch in a dilapidated bar just off-post called “Pancho’s Saloon”—a bar which doubled as a horseback riding club and a restaurant of dubious quality.

As is the case in Wolfe’s narrative telling of this gem of American history, Kaufman takes great care with these sequences from the 40s and 50s, and he creates an atmospheric tribute to this strange confluence of high desert and Joshua trees, leather jackets and handmade flight helmets, geeky engineers and self-confident flyers, and the quietly suffering wives who must face, on any given day, a twenty percent chance that a military pastor bearing bad news may come walking up their sidewalk.

In the early segments of the film, Sam Shepard’s portrayal of the chiseled and laconic Yeager is balanced perfectly with the smiling, brash personalities of Quaid and Ward (as Cooper and Grissom). Kaufman understands that in cinema less is more, and the film manages to explain the unexplainable—that is, the concepts of bravery and duty and courage—but also that undefined thing that takes us a step further than mere courage. What is it that makes a man capable of such action, such risk, but still brings him home alive at the end of his workday? When facing this challenge each day, what is it that separates those who evade death from those who die? Luck? Hardly. Skill or talent alone? Not likely. So there must have been more to it—this package which included the righteous stuff of heroism and courage. This is the central thesis for both Wolfe and Kaufman.

Helping to pin a voice and narrative thread to the early story is the face of Jack Ridley, Yeager’s flight engineer, frequent sidekick and all-around go-to-guy. Indeed, it is Ridley’s off-camera voice-over (played to perfection by Levon Helm) which opens the film, and, closes it as well—a dry, matter-of-fact West Virginia drawl that presents the initial challenge the pilots faced. (There’s a demon that lives in the air...they said anyone who challenged him would die). Even as the movie progresses forward through the early stages of the Mercury program—its failures, its struggles, its eventual dazzling success—we return from time to time to the thread of Yeager and his friend Ridley back at Edwards Air Force Base. To supplement Yeager’s long shadow over flight, Kaufman successfully weaves into this subplot the dynamic between Yeager and his wife Glennis, played with subtle, sexy aplomb by Barbara Hershey.

The wives are, in fact, more than mere backstory for Wolfe, and for Kaufman. The opening pages of the book set the scene from the perspective of a spouse—Jane Conrad, married to a pilot named Pete Conrad who would later join the astronaut program (and eventually be one of the 12 human beings to walk on the moon)—as she learns of a fatal plane crash, then, waits in unbearable anxiety for that knock to arrive at her door. Where Wolfe begins his story with the Conrad couple in Jacksonville, Florida in 1955, Kaufman prefers to drop back in time further, taking us to California in 1947 and to the day before Yeager broke the sound barrier in the X-1.

Kaufman, like Wolfe, makes the story of the wives central to the narrative, and Veronica Cartwright and Pamela Reed (as Betty Grissom an Trudy Cooper, respectively) give astonishing performances as wives coping with the military’s deprivations and hardships, as well as that unwritten code for Army flyers. The film shows us that the rarified world of test pilots, especially in those days, was an elite club, with Yeager at the “top of the pyramid”—a club seemingly so desirable that pilots from all over the country sought to be assigned to the harsh conditions of Edwards Air Force Base.

But, just at that moment, the Soviets launch Sputnik into space, placing the tiny satellite in orbit around the earth. No Post War event prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis could have fanned the flames of fear and paranoia as much as Sputnik, and the United States was caught, overnight, in a desperate race to catch up with the Russians. The American space program was born, and aviators of great skill were needed to pilot the spaceships. Where the test pilots had led lives far from the spotlight and the press, those first seven astronauts—selected from the hundreds who were screened—become overnight sensations. Arguably, never before in human history had society conferred such heroic status to so few men before they had even met their assigned challenge, and never had this kind of celebrity been seen in the American experience.

As a foil to the heroism, Kaufman paints a picture of the press in a most unflattering caricature. In most scenes the unruly gaggle of reporters are portrayed as parasitic and insect-like, with their high speed shutter cameras and 8 mm newsreel equipment forming a chorus of cricket and cicada chattering. Still, this is the 20th Century, and the press is needed, for without favorable media reports the early space program might have foundered.

Kaufman forms careful divisions of character types. The aviators, astronauts and wives fill the top slot, moving within the narrative in terms both mortal and human. As with the greedy reporters, other groups are cast in broad caricature. Engineers are portrayed as geeky, but also as stubbornly unwilling to acknowledge the potential skill of pilots—preferring, for example, to call the flyers “occupants” of space “pods.” Politicians, caught in the national fever, are cast as opportunistic and self-serving (there’s a surprise), constantly seeking to channel astronaut goodwill into their own pockets. This process of cultural and sociological division is in keeping with author Tom Wolfe’s own penchant for group identity and stratification, and his love of social competition has long been a staple of his non-fiction (The Electric Kool-Ade Acid Test; Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine) and his fiction (The Bonfire of the Vanities; A Man in Full).

Part of what makes The Right Stuff effective is that Kaufman and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel effectively transport us through time using every atmospheric device available—from stunning sets to authentic recreations of actual locations, to atmospheric location shooting in the California desert, Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, and Houston. Deschanel’s visual compositions are balanced, lavish and even, at times, poetic, and these elements are part of the magic which helps make the film seem simultaneously classical, as well as fresh. There are few of the shaky-cam, herky jerky camera movements now so common among contemporary cinematographers, and fewer still are the ubiquitous digital special effects which now make science, sci-fi and fantasy filmmaking into a relatively lazy process—no need for skillful storytelling when one can dazzle the audience instead with multiple layers of extended glittering effects (just look at the current wave of complaints about the recently released The Hobbit and the newly re-rebooted Star Trek films of 2011 and 2013 ). The visual tools deployed in The Right Stuff are understated, but also convincing and effective, whether they are the numerous shots of high speed aircraft, inside cockpits, or the more elaborate effects required to take us into outer space. Kaufman also effectively integrates newsreel and television footage where necessary, seamlessly weaving into the film actual scenes of rocket launches, parades, White House ceremonies.

The overall effect is to combine the very best elements of the documentary into the most enchanting kind of cinema storytelling. Like Wolfe’s book, Kaufman’s movie flows like smoothly edited fiction, despite the faithfulness to the history of the early space program.

Making the film even more likeable is the ensemble cast. It helps that most of the actors chosen to play the parts of the real pilots and astronauts bear close resemblance, and their ability to morph believably into these roles is flawless. Though they were relative unknowns at the time, Ed Harris and Scott Glenn are instantly effective at becoming John Glenn an Alan Shepard. And nearly as essential to the story is Dennis Quaid’s portrayal of the self-confident and brash L. Gordon Cooper. Harris especially captures the essence of John Glenn, the good-natured, young Marine aviator and Korean War veteran with an almost pathological love of the television camera. Harris and Quaid become the bookends of the troop of young astronauts, with John Glenn (Harris) at the end where restraint and model good behavior exists, and Cooper (Quaid) at the other end of the spectrum—where Scotch was consumed in liberal quantities while watching the many available girls in the cheap bars of Cocoa Beach, and where fast cars were de rigeur.

The Right Stuff grows in stature with time in part because of its core value of American audacity and tenacity. We now live in an age when nearly every issue becomes an intractable problem, every real-world challenge becomes reason for divisiveness and political gridlock, and every social question is fraught with cultural bitterness. Alternate forms of energy, technological challenges, infrastructure, defense; taxes, spending, budgets—there is little for which Americans can find consensus. But at the height of the Cold War, the “space race” seemed not only reasonable but essential to democracy and its survival. Our rockets and our space capsules became proxy devices by which we could fight back against communism and the Soviet Union. Those first astronauts became icons of heroism and courage, elevated in status to the role of single-combat warriors. Well before the end of the Mercury program—before Gemini and before Apollo—the American astronaut had already outshone all the great achievements of all figures of aviation history combined, from the Wright Brothers to Charles Lindberg, from Amelia Earhart to Howard Hughes, from Slick Goodwin to Chuck Yeager himself. The astronaut, willingly or not, had been thrust into an arena of adulation previously found only in classical mythology—Achilles and Hector and Ajax—or the legendary names of the knights, Arthur or Galahad or Gawain.

When The Right Stuff was released in 1983, the first book of the American space program had long been closed. All the feverishly-paced programs of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, as well as SkyLab and the joint Apollo-Soyuz missions were a part of history, and manned space exploration had been largely abandoned in the interim to the Soviets, who had adopted their own template where long-duration travel and space station development took precedent. In the meantime, the U.S. would enter into a new chapter—the shuttle program—which would again put Americans into space using dramatically different technologies and a far more complex and elegant flying machine. The shuttle would make space travel into something routine, potentially profitable, and—so the futurists and visionaries imagined—shuttles would eventually have the capacity to take almost anyone into space. The shuttle seemed a bridgehead which would connect those breathtaking sci-fi images (Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; Star Trek: The Motion Picture and its sequels; even the lavish Star Wars) to real world and real solar system applications. Even space tourism seemed not only likely, but inevitable. The explosion of the Challenger in January of 1986 reminded people that space exploration—like the audacious travels of sea explorers in past centuries—was a perilous, sometimes risky undertaking.

The Right Stuff was the major sleeper of 1983. Its box office numbers were slow, even sluggish, and the film eventually managed to break even only a few years later (when I went to see it the first time, on the Friday it opened in Florida, there were only about a dozen other people in the theater). Critically, however, it scored well, receiving numerous awards, including seven Oscar nominations, for which it won four Academy Awards. But more enduring was its long-term effect on how Hollywood approached true science and the amazing story of space exploration. After Apollo, and in the post-Watergate post-Vietnam era, few films had attempted to revisit the heroism of the space program—and the few that did were prone to deep cynicism and fear; Capricorn One, for example.

The Right Stuff changed all that. Within a few years filmmakers such as Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Michael Grossman and Tom Hanks were willing to tackle the epic sweep of space exploration with huge mainstream blockbuster retellings. Apollo 13, directed by Howard and with an all-star cast including Hanks, would become a major box office success, and on its heels came the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (executive producer: Tom Hanks), the most elaborate and expensive made-for-TV mini-series ever produced. There were also big-budget astronaut-inspired documentaries, including When We Left the Earth, and In the Shadow of the Moon. By this point, NASA had become a willing and enthusiastic supporter of the filmmakers and their big-screen recreations, and many of the stars of the popular films listed above (Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks, Gary Sinese, Kevin Bacon, Brian Cranston, Chris Isaak) lent their faces and voices to official NASA cinema, including the IMAX films shown even today at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The Right Stuff is often referred to by film lovers as a gem, the word “gem” being an affectionate way to express a near-sadness that a movie didn’t make a bigger impression at the box office despite its power to entertain and edify us years later. For moviegoers of a certain age—almost anyone born after 1950—this film is a wonderful, rousing experience, well worth a few hours of movie time even 30 years after its release.