The Right Stuff

(Philip Kaufman, USA, 1983)


The practice of re-releasing films is a common one in Europe, but a much rarer one elswhere. However, in 1995 the success of the space epic Apollo 13 led to the re-issue of Philip Kaufman’s 1980s phenomenon The Right Stuff in several countries. Cinephiles don’t always speak fondly of the ‘80s, especially in relation to American cinema. This national cinema seemed to polarise in that period: into either bloated, special-effects extravaganzas in the wake of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), or modest offerings hidden away in video-shop genres like horror, thriller and teen movies (all the truly right stuff I regularly defend and champion).

But there has been at least one thread in that more mainstream line of movies where, it seems to me, talented filmmakers still experiment with intriguing, adventurous forms: those long, sprawling, two-and-a-half to three-hour movies made by Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee that don’t have a classical, stable structure, but something more akin to a jazz construction. They follow the groove of odd, disconcerting rhythms; they have large chunks of plot or description that seem to suddenly break off, leading to something else that grows. There are surprising leaps in time, great narrative ruptures, and key plot events left out of the final montage. And, above all, there’s a daring play with the contrast and juxtaposition of moods, with a work constantly lurching from broad comedy to melancholic epiphany.

Philip Kaufman has long been a bold, jazzy director in this tradition, and The Right Stuff offers his most way-out and inspired concatenation of riffs. I rate it among the great American films of the ‘80s.

It’s also a movie that looks strikingly different 12 years after first viewing it. The passing of time has put Kaufman’s work into telling relief. I suspect it has a better chance with audiences in the ‘90s than it did in the ‘80s. Its bizarre sense of humour has since become a cultural flavour. And its ambiguous mood – somewhere between sophisticated satire and dumb-joke celebration – strikes a more resonant chord, feeling more familiar.

It’s amusing to remember now that The Right Stuff’s initial release coincided, for some culture buffs (me included), with the
breaking of a wave of articles in switched-on art magazines about postmodernism and pop culture. I didn’t realise it at the
time, but this big, brazen movie had already perfectly encapsulated the strange, kinky state of mind that people were sensing in the air and trying to understand at that initial (depending on how you periodise it!) “postmodern moment”.


In fact, looking back, I’d say that The Right Stuff is categorically the Forrest Gump (1994) of the ‘80s – and I feel certain that it strongly influenced both the novel and film of Forrest Gump (after all, didn't the Gump of Winston Groom’s book get shoved into a space capsule?). But here I am talking about the Zeitgeist, not cinematic quality – because Kaufman trumps Robert Zemeckis, in this particular comparison, hands down. (Zemeckis’ own best work came elsewhere.)

The Right Stuff is based on a book by Tom Wolfe. I have it on good authority that virtually every key line, incident and observation in Wolfe’s New-Journalistic account of the “Mercury Seven” has found its way into Kaufman’s very intricate screenplay. That phenomenon in itself marks a new movement in cinema, a particular relation to non-fictional literary sources that, in its extreme fidelity, forces new and at times unwieldy narrative forms into being – Scorsese’s Casino (1995) offers another, contemporaneous example.

The Right Stuff condenses the early history of America’s space program – from the moment that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 to the various solo missions by astronauts undertaken in the early 1960s. The story is structured as a mosaic of characters, fragments and vignettes. We see teams of proud, professional pilots confront, time and again, a sea of “suits”: politicians, engineers, bureaucrats. We see the generally disintegrating marital and family lives of the astronauts. We see the entire circus of media coverage of the space flights. And we see the top-level machinations of White House officials as they look at smuggled footage of Russian technological achievements, and then plot the next frantic counter-move in the space race.

Let us pause for a moment on this now almost comical term: Space Race. Is there any greater symbol of human or social folly than the time, hopes, dollars, massive technological labour and expertise poured into this particular endeavour – followed by the embarrassed silence and void that now accompanies the historic memory of this weird and, ultimately, wildly irrational quest? What did we ever actually hope to do, out there in space? Colonise Mars? Chat with aliens? The fervent space-travel plans of yesteryear now appear as so much sci-fi-fed nonsense. In Apollo 13 – to give a feeling of the very different 1990s mood – almost all these dreams have evaporated: the only glory is in makng it safely back home, where we can snuggle down with our very own ecological, economic and social catastrophes. End of parenthesis.

The Right Stuff is, in many respects, a paradoxical project for Kaufman – and it’s this quality of paradox that helps generate its unusual, unique power. Kaufman is an American left-liberal, and openly so. He made a film about the incursion of whites into Inuit culture, The White Dawn (1974), and his work is full of gestures of solidarity with feminist women, Native Americans, African-Americans. This side of Kaufman’s sensibility has a field day in a particular sequence of The Right Stuff set in Australia, where a wise band of Aborigines (including David Gulpilil) dance and chant to help the voyage of a space capsule. It’s a shocking bit of myth-making that’s not too far from the crimes against indigenous culture committed by Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders on their filmmaking jaunts Down Under; but at least Kaufman has the eager courage of his flamboyant, New Age convictions.

But how does the politically sensitive Kaufman deal with material that is, for the most part, brazenly macho, patriotic, militaristic and – when it comes to depicting Germans and Russians – pretty racist? William Goldman’s original screenplay, which Kaufman rejected, had an explicitly patriotic intent: to boost the morale of the American people during the Iran hostage crisis (1979-1981). Intriguingly, what Kaufman immediately put back in (that Goldman had left out of his adaptation of Wolfe) was the story of Chuck Yeager, embodied so memorably by celebrated playwright Sam Shepard in his finest screen role. Perhaps Goldman considered that too off-centre for a proper Hollywood narrative line; Kaufman makes it the heart and soul of his movie.

Yeager gave Kaufman a particular angle on the material: for him, it was all about a lost America, an America with this man as its vanishing point. Kaufman is willing to drop or modulate his personal politics to this extent: in order to honour the rugged, noble, pioneer spirit that animated America when it could still consider itself the New World. And he’s willing to honour lost ideals of manhood, camaraderie and patriotism, when they belong to a nation and a people keen to “invent themselves”, as he put it. And he’s more than willing to honour the lost American cinema of John Ford, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra.

There are some who have seen the film as a simple apologia for the Ronald Reagan era (1981-1989) and the sharply conservative turn of American politics during that decade. Andrew Britton (1952-1994), a British critic I greatly admire, slammed it as a blunt, reactionary celebration of technology and phallic power, in the vein (he argues) of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises – that discussion appears in the posthumous anthology Britton on Film, as part of the famous 1986 essay “Blissing Out”, a masterpiece of cinema commentary. But I cannot agree with Britton’s analysis in this case. The Right Stuff is not a politically progressive film, but it’s not therefore immediately abominable.

Before we start chopping down every phallus in sight (or mind), we should try to see what it is exactly that Kaufman finds to be worth honouring in these macho men of the modern American frontier. And, in fact, they’re a disarming bunch of dudes, brought to life by a terrific ensemble including Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid and Ed Harris. They’re maddening, irresponsibly boyish, occasionally frightfully sexist. But Kaufman imbues them with a rare charm and splendour. And he gives us a special bonus that offsets all the macho stuff: a very tender and moving depiction of the fragile relationships between the men and their partners, a tenderness that occurs even given all the disconnection and frustration that plays out between these stoic space men and feisty women. (A splendidly physical scene introducing Barbara Hershey as Yeager’s wife Glennis is especially indelible in its King Vidor-style high-romanticism.)

The Right Stuff is also a comedy. Film industry pundits wonder why it didn’t do better commercially in 1983; its very odd sense of humour must certainly be among the pertinent factors. One of the most distinctive things about Kaufman as a director is that he likes to create a form of screen comedy that is, in fact, very close to a certain kind of cartoon. Not cartoon-action like in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), but cartoon narrative (as Brian Henderson has outlined it) that stretches back to the films of Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges and Frank Tashlin, and looks forward especially to The Simpsons – not to mention the entire œuvre of the Coen brothers. For its middle hour, The Right Stuff is, in fact, something very close to The Simpsons in Space Training (and a prominent voice-artist from that show, Harry Shearer, gets a plum, goofy role here). Indeed, most members of the cast were probably chosen on the basis of their (greater or lesser) cartoonish cragginess and angularity, as if their features had been drawn onto the celluloid and animated.

Cartoon narrative per se is built essentially on exaggerated plot repetitions and symmetries, like in Robert Clampett’s Warner Bros. animations. Everything in The Right Stuff goes around and around in a frenzied whirl of repetition. We see a Russian space craft launch, then we see the long, lanky legs of that freaky fellow Jeff Goldblum pounding down a corridor, then we see him bursting through a door to announce the bad news: this happens three times in the film, each time shorter and more economically than the previous time – and it’s that very telescoping of the action which creates the gag.

More generally, it’s a film built obsessively on little verbal mottos and aphorisms: “Screw the pooch”, “You’re looking at him”, “Spam in a can”, “Fuckin A, bubba”. In one hilarious scene, the astronauts spend some minutes patiently explaining exactly what Gus Grissom (Ward) meant when he mumbled a single, incoherent phrase about monkeys.

The Right Stuff marked the summit of Kaufman’s career as a director. Before it, his off-beat work such as The Wanderers (1979) and the first remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) rarely received the attention they deserved. And after it came misjudged, disappointing, even tedious projects such as Henry and June (1990) and Rising Sun (1993) – although even the former has some delicious touches of cartoon narrative, and the latter chugs along entertainingly enough. But The Right Stuff is Kaufman’s most perfectly achieved film, and also his most eloquent, since it creates a precarious but superb equilibrium between patriotic belief and ironic disbelief, between vulgarity and sublimity, between experimental filmmaking and the Lucas-Spielberg blockbuster.

Postmodernism at the movies was rarely this dynamic in the 12 years between the release and re-release of The Right Stuff. But, come to think of it, perhaps Kaufman wasn’t as cripplingly self-conscious about these cultural questions as many filmmakers and arts critics are today.

Another matter: The Right Stuff is not afraid of mythic references and grand, poetic symbolism. Kaufman is a little like Francis Ford Coppola in this regard. The big finale here is mounted like a comparable passage of Apocalypse Now (1979/2001). Coppola cuts back and forth, with much slow motion and pounding of drums, between an animal being slaughtered and the death of Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kaufman also gives us an elongated, heightened, twin-set spectacle. The pilots in the space program are introduced by Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffat) to their new headquarters in Houston; at the highpoint of the evening, a woman appears on stage and does a grandiloquent dance with huge feathery wings crossing and recrossing her body. The pilots smile at it, at first, as a bit of high-art ostentation; but they eventually start gazing at each other rather homoerotically, as if they have cottoned onto some sublime truth about themselves and their grandiloquent, only-angels-have-wings profession.

Meanwhile, we keep cutting back to Yeagar: he’s taking a new plane out on his lonesome to break the kind of speed record that, as his mate tells him, no one cares about anymore. He chews his gum, goes higher and faster, reaches that envelope in the sky and sees the stars in the night before him. Then he falls, ejects himself into the air with his parachute, while his plane crashes and burns. Back on the ground, he strides away from the wreckage, proud and stupid, grand and solitary, as he has always been.

It’s an amazing sequence about men defying the heavens, daring to steal the fire of the sun – or, as is stated the very start, about facing the demons that dwell in the clouds. Go Myth!

MORE Kaufman: Twisted, Hemingway & Gellhorn, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

© Adrian Martin September 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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