It surprised many in 1983 when The Right Stuff debuted in theaters and promptly flopped. The film was based on a very popular subject, the beginning of the American space program and it portrayed brave men who were beloved public figures. These men had remained part of public life and they had, for the most part, endorsed the warts and all story based on the reporting of Tom Wolff who was on the front lines of reporting on the space race.
And yet, the film failed to find an audience despite its high profile subject and glowing reviews. The film earned 8 Academy Award nominations and brought home 4 Oscars and still was not able to draw a crowd. Roger Ebert, in his Great Films review of The Right Stuff, pegged the failure to audiences simply not being ready for a movie to make our outer space legends into real men. Despite the primer of Wolff’s bestseller of the same name, audiences didn’t want to see these legends as anything less than legends.
It’s a shame, because those audiences really missed out. The Right Stuff is a remarkably compelling piece of historical fiction. As directed by a Philip Kaufman from a screenplay adapted by William Goldman, that was subsequently credited to Kaufman after the two famously fell out, The Right Stuff captures the urgency and excitement of the space race while making these outsized heroes into regular size, flawed but lovable, everyday heroes.
The story begins in the late 1950’s. Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is, perhaps, the best pilot on the planet. With developers eager to push the envelope of what a plane can do, Yeager is the man who volunteers to try and do things people didn’t believe were possible. It was Chuck Yeager who broke the sound barrier and eventually was the first man to travel at Supersonic speed, Mach 2.3. He even travelled higher in a plane than anyone in history.
You might be wondering why, if Yeager was the best pilot and arguably the bravest, why wasn’t he an astronaut. Simply, he declined the chance to tryout, viewing it as a suicide mission. The earliest version of what we now know as NASA wasn’t exactly keen on having Yeager anyway, or indeed, humans in general. The first thoughts of NASA engineers under famed German scientist Werner Von Braun, was to send a chimp into space.
Nevertheless, thanks to the demand of President Eisenhower, American test pilots and members of each military branch were brought in to be tested and 7 brave men were finally chosen for what would become America’s first trip into space in 1961. Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) became the first to go into space. He was followed by Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). Eventually, the man everyone assumed to be America’s best and brightest astronaut, John Glenn (Ed Harris), would go and the template would be set for the American space program going forward.
The film goes from 1957 to 1963 when Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) became the last man to fly solo in space. After him came the multi-man missions, with the goal of getting to the moon. Regardless, the story told in The Right Stuff is deeply compelling. Even at 3 hours and 13 minutes, arguably the real reason the film failed at the box office, the film flows like a much shorter movie. The Right Stuff never feels long, it’s not padded by unnecessary scenes.
The length though, must be viewed as a factor in why The Right Stuff did not make back it’s 27 million dollar budget. Three hours is a lot to ask of an audience, not to mention how much that length cuts back on the number of times per day the film could be shown in theaters. I’m spending a lot of time on this because fighting the idea that The Right Stuff was a failure is part of my strategy of getting you to see it.
I do believe that Roger Ebert had a good point about how people didn’t want these legends of space to be too real for them. Humanizing them is one thing but portraying them as boys will be boys playboys, aside from the goody two shoes likes of John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, gave audiences a glimpse they did not want behind the curtain of what had been sold to them 20 years earlier as a great American triumph.
Indeed, it likely shocked audiences to hear their heroes talking about branding and marketing, how they are commodities to be used to sell the space program to the American public as an expenditure. Then there are the depictions of our many failures and setbacks, real history which saw billions of dollars lost in crashed rocket after crashed rocket before we had to sit by and watch as Yuri Gagarin of Russia, our Cold War enemy, became the first man in space.
Audiences wanted the glory of the space program they were sold by Life Magazine. They wanted the white bread heroes who loved their wives and went to church on Sunday. The Right Stuff gives you everything, the heroism and the personalities and the less than noble qualities of our famed heroes and it would make sense for audiences to reject that. Tom Wolff’s book was both blessing and curse, a bestseller but perhaps something that preceded the movie enough that it allowed audiences to know what was coming and reject it on principle.
Nevertheless, I hope you go back and give The Right Stuff another chance. The film is exceptional. Philip Kaufman many not be remembered as a genius director, but he is a fine film craftsman. The film is exceptionally well put together. The pace is brisk, and the big scenes impact as big scenes. The film film soars and never feels like a drag even at 3 hours and 13 minutes. The Right Stuff is deeply nostalgic but it’s nostalgic for something more real and lasting than the hagiographies of the original stories about our heroic astronauts.
The Right Stuff is available to rent on Amazon Prime and would make a smart primer for the new Ryan Gosling space drama First Man which opens nationwide this weekend.