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You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff
(1983)

(SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13. Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name was first published in 1979. His works have yielded both good and bad in terms of adaptations. The Right Stuff is firmly in the former camp, while in the latter, there’s The Bonfire of the Vanities half a decade later; his articles also informed the earlier The Last American Hero (1973). When a film adaptation of The Right Stuff was first planned, directors like Michael Ritchie and John G Avildsen were approached, and the go-to guy for prestige pictures, William Goldman, was secured to furnish the screenplay. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, he describes his involvement with the project, which he didn’t think supported a movie, noting “The real excitement deals with Yaeger” and how “there were at least two central stories in the book and they truly didn’t touch at any point”. Producer Irwin Winkler proposed excising Yaeger, and Goldman agreed. Goldman describes his mindset at the time, easily influenced by public events (the Iranian hostage crisis, a manufactured event itself), such that “I wanted to ‘say’ something positive about America”.

Indeed, much as I rate Goldman at his best, his account is an insight into how parochial his mindset could be, such that he bought into the competition of the Space Race wholesale, and the humiliating defeat that was Yuri Gagarin getting up there first (Dark Moon conjectures that his flight was entirely show for the news, the real event having taken place previously – which would obviously require one to believe Gagarin’s alleged achievement was feasible in the first place, so operating under the same “laws” of the universe as landing on the Moon). Accordingly, when John Glenn orbited the Earth four times “We were America again”. By this point, Philip Kaufman was aboard the project. He’d earlier received kudos for urban paranoia remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and he absolutely wasn’t going to fall for Goldman’s proposed tone: “…patriotism’s too easy, Ronald Reagan’s patriotic and who wants that?

Further still, per Goldman, “Phil’s heart was with Yaeger. And not only that, he felt the astronauts, rather than being heroic, were really minor leaguers, mechanical men of no particular quality, not great pilots at all, simply the product of hype”. This is, indeed, the by-and-large of the movie’s message. Albeit, it is considerably caveated, and simply to argue that as the takeaway would be to ignore the considerable affection Kaufman has for his characters. Evidently not enough that the Mercury Seven team didn’t variously voice their disapproval of the picture – in particular, the depiction of Guy Grissom’s door-bolts incident, while Schirra commented “We called it Animal House in Space” – but they could hardly do otherwise, could they? The Right Stuff was, ever-so slightly, slapping them in the face and crashing their hype. Goldman: “What Phil wanted to say was that America was going down the tubes. That it had been great once, but those days were gone, and wasn’t that a shame”.

But even if one were to vouchsafe the official, sanctioned version of the Space Race, the unstinting hero worship offered by the likes of Guantanamo Hanks and Howard et al is entirely unpalatable. Where The Right Stuff falls back on classical tropes is perhaps the legitimate “in” to criticise its telling and its take, one Pauline Kael homed in on in her review. She noted Kaufmann was much more the anti-establishmentarian than Wolfe, yet he was “still stuck with its reactionary cornerstone: the notion that a man’s value is determined by his physical courage”. Now, I can’t argue with that. Kaufmann is very consciously myth making in his ground-up depiction of Yaeger. Somehow, this works, though. Perhaps because Yaeger’s every quality – as embodied by Shephard – is one we can affirm as a positive, apart perhaps from the batshit desire to out-fly any contender and retain his speed record.

Indeed, Chris Peachment, in the Film Yearbook Volume 3, referenced the “protean figure of Yeager”, identifying how explicitly Kaufmann was associating him with legends of yore, such that he brings “old western values into this new world of the jet age” (most evidently in his horseman status; when he rides up to a new test plane, it’s a clash of technology and ethos; this might as well be Valley of the Gwangi). Throughout, Kaufmann invites us to look to Yaeger for the “objective view” of Space Programme (which is not to say the director isn’t playing it, by turns, larky, dramatic and internecine).

It’s Yaeger who attests to the immateriality of anyone strapped to a rocket (“I’ll tell you what else, anybody goes up in the damn thing’s going to be spam in a can”), and one might infer from that the absurdity of the entire programme. When the hammer comes down on Grissom – Kaufmann has been criticised, not for reflecting the general opinion at the time, but keeping culpability vague and so failing to exonerate him outright, per later findings – it is Yaeger who delivers the affirmation: “Sometimes you get a pooch that can’t be screwed, you know?” He avers – and in so doing invites us to the same conclusion – that these men do have the right stuff: “You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode? It takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission. Especially when it’s on TV. Old Gus, he did all right”.

Of course, whether this is foolhardiness, glory-seeking or genuine bravery is moot. Kael seized on what she saw as contradiction in Kaufmann’s text: “It satirises the astronauts as mock pilots, and it never indicates that there’s any reason for them to be rocketing into space besides the public-relations benefit of the government; it then celebrates them as heroes”. I don’t think there’s any real contradiction in this, providing you see them going up as real, of course; what they’re doing is something, but it is also, by necessity of divestment of autonomy and unique skillset (other than resilience), not the same thing as Yaeger’s brand of heroism. For Kael, the logical extension of their volunteering, “out of personal ambition and for profit”, is little different to a chimp getting in there for a banana; there’s a false logic in there.

Chuck Yaeger: I am a fearless man but I’m scared to death of you.
Glennis Yaeger: No, you’re not. But you ought to be.

Whether or not Kaufmann is indulging an antediluvian test of what’s important – courage – what’s undeniable is that he and Shephard entirely convince us Yaeger exemplifies this. He’s a mature old hand, one who, unlike most of the Mercury pups, has maximum respect for his wife (Barbara Hershey, fleshing out a character and relationship in a few short scenes; in contrast to the Mercury wives, she has no illusions about their arrangement) and a wisdom about the world and his place in it. His test flights are for personal not public acclaim, as Kaufmann emphasises during the fan dance finale, intercutting with Yaeger in the Lockheed NF-104. Immediately prior to this, asked the “best test pilot you ever saw”, Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) is all set on providing a sincere and serious answer before checking himself with “You’re looking at him”. As Peachment sees it, this finale is the summation of Kaufmann’s message: “It is the nature of heroes that they live their lives out of the light” (although, let’s not kid ourselves that Yaeger was unknown or anything close; for the purposes of the movie, however, he is the unsung titan).

Kae’s lengthy review makes for amusing reading, since she was continually checking her enthusiasm – an “epic ramble” that “gives off a pleasurable hum”; “It’s a stirring, enjoyable mess of a movie”; “a puppyish enthusiasm carries it forward, semi-triumphantly"; “The movie has the happy, excited spirit of a fanfare, and it’s astonishingly entertaining…” – with a need to call it out. She objected to The Right Stuff’s main thrust, even attempting to suggest it has no thrust, no theme, because she objected to that theme (the tacky idea that Americans can’t be true, modest heroes anymore); “he’s making points on an epic scale rather than telling an epic story. He hasn’t dramatized what he wants to get at; he has attitudinised instead – setting the modern, hype-bound world against a vision of the past that never was”. To which my response would be “And so...?” If that’s her criticism, yes, it’s a valid one, but I don’t think that amounts to a problem with the movie. Indeed, it’s an express virtue. You can’t mistake Kaufmann (and by implication Wolfe’s) position.

Part of The Right Stuff’s distinctiveness comes from a streak of irreverence – what Kael referred to as its “nuthouse-America games” – that punctures any of the lofty inclinations of later Space Race re-enactments. Even the iconic and much-imitated walk-down shot of the astronauts is offset by the realisation that, well, their suits look a little silly in the cold light of day. Wally Schirra’s “Animal House” accusation – possibly as much sour grapes that Lance Henriksen’s personification barely gets two lines – is to some degree borne out by Kaufman’s run of humorous incident. There’s their juvenile competitiveness (the ball breathing exercise). The slapstick training and testing (Gordo and his sperm sample, his leering “There’s plenty more where that came from” to Jane Dornacker’s moustachioed Nurse Murch, before being called up short; “You, er, want to meet my wife?”). Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) offending orderly Gonzales (Anthony Muñoz) with his José Jiménez impression and then being caught in a desperate situation with his waste tube and bottle; “Alan must have had four cups of coffee before he went to work” precedes him waiting for hours on the launchpad, increasing desperate to urinate. The implication that John Glenn is the only one of the septet who has resisted the lure of astronaut groupies also has some validity, if perhaps overstated.

More than the affectionate pokes at the Mercury Seven themselves, though, there’s the depiction of NASA and the government. Kauffmann establishes his flippant tone from the off with Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer’s NASA recruiters as they set out the astronaut candidacy options. These includes surfers, racing drivers (“Quite comfortable in positions of flame”) and sending a couple into orbit. They also squabble over whether Gagarin or Titov is on the right or left in a photo. The recurring shot of Goldblum running down a corridor to announce the latest bad news punctuates the proceedings, and the contest itself (“Our Germans are better than their Germans”; “The first American into space is not going to be a chimpanzee”) and succession of rocket failures are depicted with considerable wryness on Kaufmann’s part.

The essential “parade” function of the entire race is emphasised through the cartoonish depiction of the press corp (comedy troupe Fratelli Bologna accompanied by exaggerated clicking and whirring sound effects). It’s readily evident too that NASA doesn’t see their human lab animals as providing a relevant contribution, which means it doesn’t care about trifles like door hatches and windows until the astronauts press them into doing so (of course, if you keep your astronaut sensorily deprived, they can spill fewer beans).

Then there’s Donald Moffat’s very funny performance as Lyndon Johnson (fellow The Thing alumni David Clennon also features). The sequence in which he waits in vain for Annie Glenn (Mary Jo Deschanel) to grant him an audience – due to her stutter, she shuns the public glare – is hilarious, and compounded by the serious moment in which John (Ed Harris) backs her up; “I’m running this show here!” he is told by a superior, only for the latter to discover there is solidarity from the rest of the Seven (the heroic stand, notably, is all about public relations).

Kaufmann very much sees Glenn as the “People’s Hero”, someone purpose-fitted for the public arena, an all-American Dudley-do-right who will say the right thing and speak for everyone, whether they agree with him or not; he’s the stamped-and-approved legend, in contrast to Yeager’s real one, but he is also afforded due status (the drama attending his orbit, and his sights and sounds). That he called his Mercury craft Friendship 7 says all you need to know about his impossibly magnanimous attitude. It helps too that Harris is such an assured actor; he and Deschanel lend the couple a sense of deep connection, such that you care and root for them (Kael noted Kaufmann “makes it possible for some of his characters to show so many sides that they keep taking us by surprise”).

It’s significant that Kaufmann makes time for the wives throughout – particularly Pamela Reed as Trudy Cooper, and Veronica Cartwright as Betty Grissom, the latter so disappointed not to have lunch with Jackie Kennedy – because the dog-and-pony show is as much about parading them as their husbands. As Trudy notes, the government spends no money “on how to be a fearless wife of a test pilot” (Glennis Yeager, for her part, stalwartly knows the score). Kael suggested it was “probably the best cast ever assembled for what is essentially a docudrama”, and Glenn, Quaid and the recently departed Fred Ward all make strong impressions (Scott Paulin as Deke Slayyon and Charles Frank as Scott Carpenter, much less so). Also to be found are Scott Wilson (since his profile leapt due to The Walking Dead, it’s amazing the number of movies you realise he was in), Kathy Baker and David Gulipilil. It’s notable, though, that none of Kaufman’s cast, accomplished as they undoubtedly are, would go on to become box-office draws (in Quaid’s case, you’d think the public actively disliked him, so many chances and some many underperformers were there).

One of Kaufmann’s curiosities is how much he associates the Space Race with the unknown, cosmic or supernatural. There is much written about NASA’s interplay with freemasonry (or foundation thereupon), and if the director never mentions Jack Parsons – of NASA’s predecessor Jet Propulsion Laboratory – less still his mentor Alistair Crowley, he clearly has the conjoining of worlds on his mind. As David Heyman noted in respect of his (Parsons, not Alan) TV project: “Now, rocket science is sort of synonymous with the most esoteric of sciences. We have that expression, ‘It’s not rocket science.’ It’s implied that it’s meant to be the stuff of really, really educated experts. Whereas, back then, it was almost the opposite where it was the stuff of science fiction. It existed in popular culture, but in the way that dragons and time travel existed. It was actually the stuff of entertainment. So, it wasn’t taken seriously not because it was too complicated or too difficult. It wasn’t taken seriously because it was seen as imaginary”.

Peachment drew attention to some of these points in his review. In particular, he noted Yeager’s Icarus-like descent and crash to earth, juxtaposed with feathered fan dancer Sally Rand. The same Yeager is pushing against the boundaries of reality/the envelope when he expresses the wish to “see where the demon lives”. When Glenn orbits the Earth, his encounter with fireflies (“Sparks and needles all over the sky”) is preceded and informed by the aborigines’ night-time fire rite in Australia; they inform Gordo of their elder “He knows the Moon. He knows the stars. And he knows the Milky Way”. However, this confirms an astral terrain, rather than necessarily a corporeal one. It’s one Glenn, through his vision quest, is also entering.

Curiously, this metaphysical interpretation isn’t one that disavows the idea of the NASA hoax; indeed, since once could argue the entirety of the (public) Space Programme is a form of magical rite, the opposite might be assumed. When Royal Dano’s minister appears to give the bad news, he conjures less a grim reaper than a Man in Black. And when Gordo exclaims "Oh Lord, what a heavenly light”, it's less an invocation of a material universe than an ethereal one. The astronauts’ mutual realisation, as Sally Rand does her transfixing stuff, is of something beyond NASA’s banal hyperbole, of a more abiding truth and peace transcending the tale they’ve been selected to tell; in that sense, Yeager testifies to a time when truth was truth, and the presented reality could be trusted, did what it said on the tin. We know, of course, that this was not the case, but it’s all degrees of separation and artifice.

Obviously, The Right Stuff doesn’t take us all the way to the Moon, so we don’t get into the BIG NASA hoax, but it does take us part of the way, covering the hatch explosion that preceded the ill-fated Gus Grissom’s death and setting the scene for an outspoken critic of the space programme. It’s perhaps worth noting Grissom, along with Cooper, Glenn and Schirra, was a mason (which leaves Shephard, Slayton and Carpenter). As such, membership isn’t the neatest argument as an encompassing explanation for complicity, especially since Grissom was the vocal one.

Grissom had, rather impromptu, informed the Press the chances of the Apollo programme completing its mission requirements were “Pretty slim”; he thought reaching the Moon was another ten years away (Apollo 13 has Walter Cronkite indirectly picking this up, reciting how the Moon landing was achieved only eighteen months after the fire that killed Grissom). He hung a large lemon around a space capsule – a “bucket full of screws” – as a symbol of his confidence, and was on record regarding the technical issues: “How are we going to get to the Moon if we can’t talk between two or three buildings?”. He is alleged to have received death threats from within the programme, and his wife said he told her "If there is ever a serious accident in the Space Programme, it’s likely to be me”.

Set against this is Grissom as the third person to go into space (the hatch incident was his second flight). One can only speculate at a chain of events, but if disillusionment at the reality – or lack thereof – of space flight set in following his mission, it might explain the public disavowal of NASA. If his son Scott is “not exactly sure why NASA or the government would want to prevent his father from continuing in the programme” (it has been suggested the three astronauts were killed by cyanide gas before the fire), the answer might be that they didn’t want him saying anything even more condemnatory or inviting of scrutiny.

Lyndon Johnson: Pretty soon they’ll have damned space platforms up there so they can drop nuclear bombs on us, like rocks from a highway overpass.

On the subject of which, Dave McGowan’s Wagging the Moon Doggie offers a valuable deconstruction of the Moon landing lie, although he wasn’t quite willing to explore the full ramifications thereof, seemingly crediting that “the Soviet Union, right up until the time that we allegedly landed the first Apollo spacecraft on the Moon, was solidly kicking our ass in the space race”. Even though he’s caused to note at one point, of a picture of “one of the alleged Luna probes, I’m going to have to say that the Soviets were lying their asses off almost as much as NASA was”. Indeed, the only logical conclusion – if we assume that NASA space is bunk – is that there was essential give-and-take complicity between the superpowers regarding the Space Race, much as the Cold War itself was largely a fabrication (see the nuke lie for more on this). Per the movie, Johnson’s “Whoever controls the high ground of space controls the world” is just so much rhetoric.

As such McGowan was likely looking in the wrong direction with his conclusion that “the entire space program has largely been, from its inception, little more than an elaborate cover for the research, development and deployment of space-based weaponry and surveillance systems”. His reading is that Nixon perpetrated the Moon landing as a distraction from the woes of Nam, but it’s clearly about much more elaborate and pervasive paradigm engineering than that. On the positive side of things, it isn’t like everyone suddenly became profoundly credulous. McGowan quoted a Wired magazine piece: “when Knight Newspapers polled 1,721 US residents one year after the first Moon landing, it found that more than 30 percent of respondents were suspicious of NASA’s trips to the Moon”.

It’s worth noting Kaufman’s place in the scheme of things. I’m a big fan of two of his movies (this and the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake), and like many of the ’70s directors and writers his output was more impressive in his first decade on the Hollywood map (although that tracks generally with creatives in the first flush of success). He was also involved in Raiders of the Lost Ark (earning a story credit; he came up with the ark McGuffin, and also making Jones less the playboy) and had been attached to the project that became Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Planet of the Titans (with a very Chariots of the Gods premise of the pre-Olympian gods as aliens). At one point, before exiting, he rewrote it: “My idea was to make it less ‘cult-ish’, and more of an adult movie, dealing with sexuality and wonders rather than oddness; a big science fiction movie, filled with all kinds of questions, particularly about the nature of Spock's [duality]-exploring his humanity and what humanness was. To have Spock… tripping out in outer space. I'm sure the fans would have been upset, but I felt it could really open up a new type of science fiction”.

Later, a preoccupation with sexual transgression took hold, taking in NC-17 Henry and June (Anaïs Nin, played by Maria de Medeiros, wrote a book on incest, based on a relationship with her father) and Quills; as McGowan noted in Programmed to Kill, it functioned as something of a rehabilitation of the Marquis de Sade, now a heroic figure crusading against censorship and prudishness. Which, if you’d want to characterise a “convict, kidnapper, torturer, rapist, and paedophile” that way, well… So Kaufman clearly had and would have form in mythologising the dubious and unsavoury (at the other end of the scale of fanciful “elevation” we have his thriller Twisted, with the rare privilege of 1% approval on RT).

The Right Stuff made a meagre $21m on a $28m budget (it couldn’t even make the US Top 5 films); this was curtains for the Ladd company, who had picked it up from United Artists. A shame, as their name was on the likes of Body Heat, Outland and Blade Runner. Even though the following year’s Police Academy was a hit for production company, it wasn’t enough (a similar “too late” happened to Orion with Dances with Wolves and The Silence of the Lambs). It was nominated for eight Oscars and won four; Kael, in the snippy part of her plaudits, claimed “The picture is glued together only by Bill Conti’s hodgepodge score”, but that’s the kind of facile charge you could lay at any classic.

Somehow, Kaufman wasn’t nominated as director for The Right Stuff, nor was the screenplay (both snubs are idiotic). Shepard lost to Jack Nicholson for Terms of Endearment – which is unsurprising, as it was the crowd-pleasing performance of the year – and it also missed Production Design, and Cinematography. Besides Score, it won Sound, Sound Effects Editing and Film Editing, while Return of the Jedi was singled out for its own special Visual Effects award (which is more impressive now? Jedi’s or these old-school ones, which only add to the picture’s organic, tangible, non-homogenous quality). Perhaps the picture’s financial failure dented Kaufman; after this, only his next, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, would match his preceding promise. There’s an argument indeed, that The Right Stuff saw him going “higher, farther and faster than any American” director… for a brief moment.



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