Title: The Right Stuff (Ladd Company, 1983)
Historical Content: 7/10
Entertainment Value: 10/10
Relevance and Datedness: 9/10
Final Score: 8.7
In October of 1947, Chuck Yeager became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound, when he piloted the Bell X-1 to a speed just beyond Mach 1. With that success, man continued to push the limits of what he could do in flight. The next challenge would prove to be an even more daunting one: manned spaceflight. Prompted by early Soviet successes, America began its search for a group of test pilots to take part in this endeavor. Out of hundreds of people, seven men were chosen to take part in the Mercury Program, America’s first series of manned missions into Earth’s orbit. The story of Yeager and America’s Mercury Astronauts is retold in the 1983 movie The Right Stuff.
Although not successful in its theatrical run, this adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s bestselling book achieved considerable critical acclaim, and has since become a classic of the genre. Despite a couple of lapses in the historical record, the film does a fine job of recreating those early days of manned flight, as men and machines pushed us faster than ever, and took us into planetary orbit for the first time. These men set the foundation of what was to come, setting the stage for the first manned trips to the Moon in just a few years time. This story continues to inspire audiences to this day.
Historical Content (7/10)
Overall, the history shown in the film is accurate. As with all films, poetic license is taken to achieve more of a dramatic effect. The first instance of this in the film, which is at the beginning, doesn’t hurt the historical narrative much. The film depicts Chuck Yeager’s (Sam Shepard) first flight in the Bell X-1 as happening on October 14th, 1947, the day he becomes the first man to break the sound barrier. In reality, Yeager made several flights in the X-1 (Which he named the “Glamorous Glennis,” after his wife), testing out the systems, making sure everything was in good order, before finally making the historical flight that put his name on the map. However, this is a minor flaw, and doesn’t really change the historical events all that much.
However, the film’s biggest historical flaw is a major one and the reason for the 7 out of 10 rating. The depiction of the Liberty Bell 7 flight by Astronaut Gus Grissom (Fred Ward, Tremors) is where the biggest bit of poetic license is taken, and does hurt the historical narrative. Historically, the July 21st, 1961 flight went according to plan, until just moments after the splashdown, the hatch on the ship, which was filled with explosive bolts in case of emergency, blew off, causing the ship to start sinking, and forcing Grissom to make a hasty exit from the ship. Grissom claimed that the hatch just blew on its own, while others believed he might have panicked, or accidentally hit the button to blow the hatch on purpose. However, NASA technicians determined that a fault in the system caused the hatch to blow on its own, proving Grissom right. But in the film version, Grissom is seen as getting panicky, almost claustrophobic, before the hatch blows, making it look like he blew the hatch before the rescue chopper could hook onto the ship, and he covered his butt by saying the hatch just blew. Despite the fact that Grissom had been proven right about the hatch, with much evidence to back up that claim, the film sticks to the “Grissom panicked” story that proved to be wrong.
However, despite this major flaw, the rest of the film stays mostly true to the events of the time, making this a solid film about the history of early manned flight.
Entertainment Value (10/10)
There is no denying that The Right Stuff is one of the greatest films of the 1980s. Much of the film’s success can be chalked up to the amazing cast assembled for the film. The film includes such talented actors as Fred Ward, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid (The Day After Tomorrow, The Alamo), Lance Henriksen (The Terminator, TV’s “Millennium”), Barbara Hershey, Scott Glenn (Silverado, Sucker Punch), Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum. All of these actors do fantastic jobs in the roles that they’re given. The highlight of the cast, however, is Ed Harris (Apollo 13, Pollock) as John Glenn. Of all the men chosen to fly the Mercury Seven spacecraft, Glenn was considered to be the best speaker, as well as the best pilot among them. Harris’ performance as Glenn in the film is spot-on, bringing this respected figure to life.
While the film covers sixteen years of American history in 193 minutes, it does so without becoming confusing or unemotional. The script, adapted from Wolfe’s book by Philip Kaufmann (Who also served as director), is brilliantly executed, making the story not only coherent, but also engaging and fun. The behind the scenes crew did a great job of bringing three decades of American history to life, from post-World War II to the early 1960s. Almost everything about this film is meticulous, and keeps the film from looking dated.
But other than the fine performances, the highlight of the film is Bill Conti’s stirring score for the film. This is one of those movies where almost everybody who talks about it comments on the soundtrack for the film. Its stirring themes are truly memorable, and it is a shame that the score was never given a proper release until recently (In a limited edition release by Varese Sarabande). The music really brings the story to full-life, and is truly one of the greatest scores of the 1980s.
Relevance and Datedness (9/10)
The story of early manned flight has always fascinated people throughout the generations. It is hard to believe how far people came following in the footsteps of the Wright Brothers in a short amount of time. In just sixty-six years, we went from the first flight, to landing on the moon. The story of how we got there is one that will continue to inspire men and women for years to come. The story told in The Right Stuff is a timeless one, and the story itself will never be dated. The only thing that might date this film is the visual effects. Although really good for the time, a few of the effects do show their age, and do slightly date the film a bit. Nevertheless, the film’s powerful performances, a well-written script, and Bill Conti’s beautiful score make this a film that will remain a classic for all time, despite the film’s few historical shortcomings.
Final Score: 8.7