Last night I watched The Right Stuff, directed by Philip Kaufman in 1983, adapted from the Tom Wolfe (white suit Tom Wolfe) novel of the same name. I never read the novel, although I want to read it now, because I sort of love that author, secretly. It's a really long movie, but it's pretty great. The topic sounds like it could be so boring and overly-technical, but it was very focused on great and memorable characters. While there were times that the whole "space race" felt a little hard to understand (for me, having not lived through it or anything), I cared so deeply about the characters that I felt excited for them and was cheering them on, just because I wanted them to succeed because I liked them and felt so close to them.
I think most people have seen this movie - I actually thought I hadn't, but I realized during the film that I must have. So much of it felt familiar that I knew I had to have watched it. In any case, the movie is about, in brief, the Mercury 7 astronauts, and the first manned flights into space. It also follows the stories of test pilots who were involved in a lot of high-speed research, and did stuff like break the sound barrier for the first time. There are a lot of little character stories woven in. Like the story of Chuck Yeager, who is considered to be the best test pilot, but is never considered for the space program. There are stories about all of the "new" pilots, such as Gordon "Gordo" Cooper, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, U.S. Marine John Glenn, and U.S. Navy pilot Alan Shepard. They all are given a lot of attention, and we really get to know their characters really well. The movie deals with how competitive it was to be an astronaut in the program, and the race between the US and Russia to be the first country to have a man in space.
I personally really liked that the movie found humor and irony in the space program. I thought the surreal aspect of the pre-space testing was really great. It was all so new, and it's not like anyone even knew what they should be testing for! Ebert writes that one of the reasons he thinks the movie did so badly at the box office was because people weren't ready to watch a movie that approached the subject with skepticism and comedy. I can't say if that is the case or not, but I really thought that it was one of the better aspects of the film. I personally don't really understand the whole "space race" competition. It felt sort of arbitrary to me, but it was easy for me to watch this movie because I didn't have to relate to that aspect of it to understand it. It was a bit of a relief for me that humor was used (I cracked up at "Our Germans are better than their Germans"). I'm not sure if I could have taken it seriously, I guess.
Ebert brings up the point that the real astronauts would have enjoyed the comedy, because unlike audiences, "The original astronauts labored under no similar handicap; they were heroes to Life magazine, but knew Werner von Braun and the German scientists behind the first launches would have preferred to have monkeys in the capsules" (Great Movies II, 376). I would imagine that they did see some irony in their own situation, and I just really loved that the movie brought it out. Plus, if it was all serious, I think it would have been harder for me to fall in love with the characters. I liked that we had opportunities to laugh with them, which is turn make us care more about them. I was rooting for them because I just really liked them.
I think the whole idea of the movie is really cool. Just the fact that there is an epic, basically, about the American space program, is really neat. It was a really huge time of growth and change, and was so important. There were huge leaps of technology and so many new discoveries, and that really deserves a lot of attention. I think this film is so great because it gives that part our history the attention it deserves, but in an accessible way. I know that a lot of people might balk at going to a museum for the day, but this movie is a really fun and interesting way to learn about the same subject. It might get people interested in the topic who may never have thought about it otherwise, although maybe that is a bit optimistic of me.
I just really liked this movie, and I loved that it had tons of information yet still was able to make it fun and easy to watch. I thought it was great that it was so focused on the characters, as well. Kaufman gave them all enough attention that you felt like you knew them, and it made it really exciting to watch
If you've never seen it, it's length can be a little scary, but it's not so bad. It's totally engrossing, and I had a great time watching it the other night. I felt like I learned some new stuff, but I still had fun doing it and got to see a really engaging character drama as well. Let me know if you check it out!
Have any thoughts on The Right Stuff? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Right Stuff
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