The cast of 1983's "The Right Stuff."

The Right Stuff July 28, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Philip Kaufman

 

STARRING 

Charles Frank
Scott Glenn
Ed Harris
Lance Henriksen
Scott Paulin
Dennis Quaid
Sam Shepard
Fred Ward
Kim Stanley
Barbara Hershey
Veronica Cartwright
Pamela Reed

RATED

PG

RELEASED IN

1983

RUNNING TIME

3 Hrs., 12 Mins.

B

iopics rush more than most other kinds of movies. Regularly overconcerned with covering all the most “important” facets of its subject’s life — and in an emotionally satisfying way, no less — they actually do a disservice to said subject in the process. In their movie’s race to cover all the bases within a two-hour runtime, the subject can become mostly in service of their own narrative rather than the other

way around. Inner lives are of less interest than replicating surfaces. Even when a biopic entertains, it’s hard to shake off a checking-off-boxes quality that makes the movie less a worthy testament to a life than a carefully packaged version. 

 

The Right Stuff (1983), an adaptation of the 1979 Tom Wolfe novel written and directed by Philip Kaufman, is the unfortunately rare biographical movie missing most of those vexing qualities. Unhurried at more than three hours, and unconcerned with flattering its subjects or the institution helping bring them notoriety, you don’t sense it trying to hit its marks or sculpt the story into something conventionally satisfying, with humanization rather than bracing legend a guiding motivation.
 

The Right Stuff covers nearly two decades — it begins in 1947 — and follows with some factual liberties the Mercury Seven, the septet of military pilots (played by actors including Fred Ward, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, and Scott Glenn) selected by NASA to take part in the program’s first spaceflight, in addition to others in their orbit as they evolved from supremely talented flyers to potential history makers. (Though he didn’t make the Mercury Seven cut, the movie is perhaps most interested in Chuck Yeager, an über-talented pilot played by Sam Shepard who fraternized with the group plenty and managed to make history on his own anyway, cheating death where others would immediately fall prey to it and, most notably, becoming the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound.) 
 

The characterizations leave something to be desired. Though you have affection for most of them, few of these men, or their family lives, are written much deeper than a handful of personality traits. (The Harris character, and his devotion to his wife, is one exception.) But The Right Stuff still frequently feels like a marvel, portraying the space race with far more incredulousness (sometimes even satirical insolence) than reverence. And it evocatively steeps the drama in the concurrent thrills and deep-seated anxieties felt when you’re the first at something — let alone a thing so physically taxing and dangerous. Whether you succeed or fail, your part in that history-making initial foray will become a kind of albatross around your self-worth, never to be entirely freed of. 
 

The performances are roundly strong, too. Shepard in particular has a just-right quality that makes Yeager believably extraordinary — almost not of this earth, entirely — without falling into the trap of making him feel strictly like a character in a movie. But that balance is also everywhere in The Right Stuff, an American epic that feels earthbound even when it’s shooting toward the

moon. B+