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How The Right Stuff United Two Americas

“The Right Stuff,” a film that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, ended Hollywood’s “Vietnam Syndrome.”

“The Right Stuff,” a film that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and will finally be released Nov. 5 on Blu-ray in an anniversary edition, ended Hollywood’s “Vietnam Syndrome.” This might seem like an odd statement since such well-known films as “Platoon,” “Casualties of War” and “Full Metal Jacket” still lay in the future when “The Right Stuff” was released in late 1983. But long before “Coming Home,” Pauline Kael observed that Hollywood A-pictures were reflecting Vietnam (and the Watergate scandal, too) not via their subject matter but in their attitudes. This disillusionment, a sense that, as she put it, “nobody understands what contemporary heroes or heroines should be,” was a rejection of an earlier era’s values. Like Ronald Reagan himself, “The Right Stuff” was a throwback that repudiated what movies and politics had become in Vietnam’s wake, while being thoroughly contemporary in other ways, including, among other things, a knowingness about how to manipulate communications.

When Yeager first sees the rocket pilots are using to try to break the sound barrier, it hisses like a wild bronco waiting to be tamed, or perhaps a devil waiting to tempt him to his death.

The film starts very much in the “Vietnam Syndrome” mode, however, as a story of defeat. Though that’s the point — to set a trajectory away from this. The opening flight ends in a hellish crash and we’re quickly put into an environment where a bar named Pancho’s has a photo wall of fame devoted only to dead pilots. Death is a common enough experience for wives to know what it means when a black-hatted-and-suited bureaucrat walks up the path. But then Chuck Yeager comes along, and the film could not more explicitly borrow from the Western muthos in painting him as an old-school cowboy. An early scene has him riding horses and doing chases through a cactus-pocked desert (the Reagan parallels here were certainly unintended, but too uncanny not to notice). When Yeager first sees the X-1 rocket that pilots are using to try to break the sound barrier, it hisses like a wild bronco waiting to be tamed, or perhaps a devil waiting to tempt him to his death. When he’s trying to break through the sound barrier, his ground control yells “put the spurs to her, Chuck.” Sam Shepard was also the ideal actor to play this kind of icon — minimalist in movement, taciturn in words and carrying physical hints of Gary Cooper.

As the film proceeds, Yeager and his colleagues at Edwards Air Force Base gradually recede into the background, and this change becomes the film’s ultimate subject. Like John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Right Stuff” is about the obsolescence of a certain type of hero, but one who is admirable in his obsolescence. After Yeager breaks the sound barrier, the Soviet Sputnik launch forces the U.S. into its own space program. In a decision made by Dwight Eisenhower himself, the U.S. wants to use test pilots. Writer-director Philip Kaufman, following Tom Wolfe’s book, then focuses on the production of a new generation of masculine heroes — successors to the classical Man of the West as Yeager was portrayed. Here in “The Right Stuff,” to paraphrase Kael, is an image of what a contemporary hero should be. An unsentimental one, but a true one that (and this is a key part of the film’s genius) doesn’t denigrate what came before. We see the manufacturing of heroes, which is de-mythologizing, though it re-mythologizes these men in a new idiom. Kaufman and Wolfe unite the pre-media America with the post-media America, the pre-irony with the post-irony, the square with the then-hip in a single film in a way that few other American movies since have succeeded in doing. It is the American movie of the 1980s.

“Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?”

He says there was one man, referring to Yeager, “who truly had the right …” He trails off before finishing the sentence.

That question is asked several times in the course of “The Right Stuff.” Early on it’s a bragging point for hot-shot test pilot Gordon Cooper to say “you’re looking at him,” either to brashly one-up the other pilots or to impress a wife who knows to indulge his convertible-driving boyishness. But near the end of the film, “Gordo”, a Mercury astronaut and one of the most-feted men in America, is asked the question again, with the TV cameras going. He starts to pay tribute to those unknown dead men on a wall (an earlier, highly symbolic scene has shown that wall burn down, the past lost to history) and says there was one man, referring to Yeager, “who truly had the right …” He trails off before finishing the sentence, which would’ve been one of only two references in the film to its title. And then he goes back to being “Gordo” and says “well, you’re looking at him.” Those lines, and the way Dennis Quaid delivers them and changes his face, are the film’s trajectory about “the right stuff,” veering in a Blakean movement from innocence through experience to “innocence.” The film’s very last rhetorical gesture aligns itself with that, the unironic voice-of-God narration and a rousing score accompany the images of the flight’s tail. Narrator Levon Helm declares Cooper’s flight as making him the greatest pilot ever, the last American to go into space alone and, in doing 22 Earth orbits, flying higher and faster than any man before.

This is one of many ways that “The Right Stuff” was one of Hollywood’s post-Vietnam films without being mere mimicry of “pre-Vietnam.” For one thing, the film has many jokes that would never pass the Hays Code. Gus Grissom’s oft-repeated signature line uses the f-word and seemingly every lower-bodily fluid makes a comic appearance with one scene centering on masturbation, another on an enema, and a third on urination. But there’s nothing explicit in the film (which was rated PG), and unpacking one use and one non-use of the f-word displays the right attitude toward this kind of material, one that doesn’t rub the audience’s nose in it while acknowledging that they’re not the same ones as the classical studio era. In one, John Glenn, portrayed as a bit of a nerdy square (two more hot-shot types look at him and Scott Carpenter and say “we’re competing against Archie and Jughead”), tries to dress down some of the other astronauts for largely unseen cheating on their wives and he does so stumbling around euphemisms like “the cookies” and “keeping our wicks dry.” In the other, Alan Shepard is strapped into the Mercury rocket on the launching pad and, unaware that the mic is on, prays to himself “Dear Lord, please don’t let me fuck up.” Cooper says, “I didn’t quite copy that. Say again, please.” And Shepard quickly corrects himself to “everything is A-OK.” A line that Cooper passes on the the press, which breathlessly reports it. Don’t use vulgarity more than one must, and practice public discretion. But don’t shrink from it.

The film was funnier than I’d remembered

While its portrayal of masculine heroism is fairly straight, the Mercury astronauts are cut from a different cloth than the X-1 pilots. For one thing, they’re far more media savvy, and it’s not just moments like Cooper’s speech. As in Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” journalists are portrayed both as a venal herd ripe for manipulation and a necessity for a contemporary hero. At various points, the ink-stained hordes are seen as comic threats with their faces literally pressed against a window and then chasing after a diaper service that isn’t even serving the astronaut they think it is. And when you look at what gets “reported” onscreen, it’s almost always something that’s been shown to the audience to be false, from “everything is A-OK” to Mrs. Grissom saying she was proud of Gus. But they’re necessary. In the 1959 press conference scene where the seven men are introduced to the public, the first two astronauts, military men, answer a softball question about support from their families with a halting literalism that makes them look a little silly. Then John Glenn comes forth to provide essentially the same cognitive content but giving a flawless soundbite and gets a standing ovation from the assembled press. Grissom and Cooper look each other in the eye and agree that “they’re eating it up” with the same amused and amazed contempt one has when seeing a dog eat scraps and leftovers. By contrast, when Yeager breaks the sound barrier, a reporter tries to call a story into his newspaper, but is stopped by a military officer on national security grounds. Indeed, the film’s other mention of the phrase “the right stuff,” from the Yeager era, makes it explicit that, like with Margaret Thatcher’s maxim about being powerful and being a lady, part of having the right stuff is not to talk about it. Yeager’s feat was not reported for some time, while the film ends with launches on live TV.

Reinforcing an emphasis on mediation

One of the astronauts’ catch-phrases is “no bucks, no Buck Rogers,” which they cite in winning design concessions from scientists who see them as monkeys, saying astronauts have to be visible and heroic — “stars” if you like — for democratically elected lawmakers to spend money on the program and fund the scientists, too. Our first view of Glenn is an appearance on a TV quiz show as a Marine hero alongside a Boy Scout, which encourages the Mutt and Jeff (Goldblum) duo watching the show to think he’d be an ideal pilot for the Mercury program. Our last view of the semi-disgraced Grissom was a to-be familiar result, as a TV analyst for a later launch. But he still gets to let out a fist-pumping cheer that compromises his objectivity. Despite that self-consciousness and manipulativeness, the men are still contrasted with blatant hucksterism, as embodied by the early test pilot who demanded $150,000 to try to break the sound barrier, while Yeager was making $283 a month.

“The Right Stuff” was a commercial bust, and probably for several reasons.

I saw the film twice in a theater recently and it was funnier than I’d remembered. But the humor is relatable to modern audiences, even as it’s contemptuous of the post-ironic culture and respectful of the earnest era in which the film takes place. There are Wolfe’s jibes at journalists, but this humor is also present in the characters of the astronauts. In addition to the saltier humor, the film has the kind of self-deprecating, in-jokey sense of humor that develops among a bonded group of male comrades. They jokingly refer to each other as “Jose Jimenez” and other politically incorrect Spanish jokes after a character on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” There is also the peculiar gallows humor of the kind that men in danger have shared since Homer was making jokes about being speared in the head like a fish. Cooper, who refers to himself as a hot dog, makes a joke at a barbecue about a burnt hot dog, which causes his wife to flee in terror, having been reminded of the grievous fatality rates for X-1 pilots. Politics and politicians are portrayed largely for comedy. Indeed, one of the film’s best moments has the cartoonish Lyndon Johnson ranting inside a limousine as Annie Glenn refuses to see him for the cameras’ benefit, with her husband’s backing.

“The Right Stuff” was a commercial bust, and probably for several reasons: the 3-hour running time did it no favors with audiences or exhibitors; although it has great flight scenes and a real sense of spiritual wonder about space, it doesn’t really have an “action film” trajectory; according to Roger Ebert, the film failed to interest teens and it’s hard not to imagine that was part of the reason; and because of partisan politics. Glenn had become a U.S. senator by then and was being hailed in the press as the man the Democrats could run against Reagan in 1984. Ultimately, the film was done in by its own hype. The casual filmgoer of winter 1983-84 could have been forgiven for thinking he would be going to a Glenn campaign commercial, and partisanship is a kiss of death for this kind of film.

Despite everything said here about post-Vietnam and the extended analogy to Reagan, the film was wildly popular among liberal-leaning critics — Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both named it among the top three films of the 1980s on a special show. Now “The Right Stuff” is a period piece itself made closer to part of the time it portrays than the film’s release is to today and its greatness is widely acknowledged. It was the all-time favorite film of late Andrew Johnston, a friend who wrote for Time Out New York and was a former chief of the New York Film Critics Circle. Just last week, Scott Carpenter died, leaving only Glenn still alive among the Mercury Seven. When it happens, “Godspeed John Glenn” will be a hard line to avoid. We are still living in a world created by the Mercury Seven, long after even when the last of these men finally slips the surly bonds of earth — we’ll always have Wolfe and Kaufman’s film to remind us that they had “The Right Stuff.”

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