The Right Stuff is a film adaptation of Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff, about the test pilots who were involved in high-speed aeronautical research at Edwards Air Force Base as well as those selected to be astronauts for the Mercury program, America's first attempt at manned spaceflight. The story contrasts the "Mercury Seven" and their families with pilots like Chuck Yeager, who was considered by many test pilots to be the best of them all, but who was never selected as an astronaut. The Mercury Seven were Scott Carpenter, Gordon "Gordo" Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Walter "Wally" Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Donald "Deke" Slayton.
Muroc Army Air Field in 1947 sets the scene for the start of the movie. This dusty, arid air force base is where high-speed aircraft are being tested in secret including the rocket-powered X-1, poised to fly at supersonic speeds. When a number of test pilots have died in the attempt to break the so-called "sound barrier," the base liaison officer, war hero Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is offered the chance to fly the X-1. While on a horseback romp with his wife, Glennis (Barbara Hershey) through the underbrush surrounding the base, Yeager falls and suffers a couple of broken ribs. Refusing to admit defeat, he triumphs (with the aid of a sawed-off broom handle) in flying the X-1 faster than the speed of sound, beating the "demon in the sky."
The film travels forward to 1953, where Edwards Air Force Base (renamed for one of the test pilots killed at the base) remains the place to be for the "prime" pilots with Yeager engaged in a contest with test pilot Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson). Crossfield and Yeager were fierce but friendly rivals for speed and altitude records. Edwards is both a very different place and yet remains the same with the celebrated Happy Bottom Riding Club run by Pancho Barnes (Kim Stanley) still the gathering place for those with the "right stuff." New pilots such as Gordon "Gordo" Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Virgil "Gus" Grissom (Fred Ward) are part of a constant stream of "pudknockers" as Barnes characterizes them. Cooper's wife, Trudy (Pamela Reed) questions the need for pushing dangerous boundaries to the limit, but is resigned to the fact that her husband like all the others, is driven by ambition as well as chasing fame. Other wives that share similar feelings have to learn to suppress their fears. By that time, the press are a familiar part of the background, recognized as the key to ensuring that essential funding never dries up.
In 1957, the historic launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite throws the entire American military and scientific worlds into chaos. Both politicians and military leaders descend upon NASA to develop a response to a perceived "Space Race" with the USSR. The search for the first Americans in space excludes test pilots like Yeager who isn't interested in being "spam-in-a-can" in creating the Mercury 7 program. The Mercury 7 astronauts that emerge from a gruelling competition include rivals U.S. Marine John Glenn (Ed Harris) and U.S. Navy pilot Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) as well as Cooper, Grissom and others. The dangers of space flight are accentuated when the rockets that will send them into space keep blowing up. For the test pilots and astronauts who are portrayed, the realization that "no bucks, no Buck Rogers" idiom has clouded their efforts, is one of the telling aspects of the film's theme.
The Mercury Seven episodes are contrasted with events at Edwards where test pilots such as Yeager, who was shut out of the astronaut program after NASA officials decided to use college-degreed pilots, continue in their dangerous work. While testing a new Lockheed NF-104A hybrid rocket and jet, Yeager sets a new altitude record at the edge of space but is seriously burnt and nearly killed in a subsequent high-speed ejection from his out-of-control aircraft.
The film reverts to the story of the Project Mercury program, chronicling the missions of Shepard, Grissom, Glenn and Cooper. When Grissom lands at sea and exits his space capsule, saving the capsule seems more important to the recovery team than saving the pilot because of the value of the data. Another political issue depicted in the film was the appropriateness of Grissom's names for publicity purposes. A claim that was eventually disproved was that Grissom may have triggered the events that caused the loss of his capsule.
Both sides of the space race (US and USSR) used experienced German engineers and rocket scientists. In a particularly humorous moment in the film , Senator Lyndon Johnson attends a meeting where the politicians are reacting to the news of Sputnik's 1957 launch. Senator Johnson asks "Is it their [the Soviets] German scientists that got them up there first?". At that moment, the "German scientist" (a composite character, heavily patterned on Wernher von Braun) responds: "No Senator... our Germans are better than their Germans." Later, Johnson, as president, carries on President Kennedy's initiative to stay on top in the space race, and a celebration he hosts at Houston, Texas, the new headquarters of NASA (that Johnson personally lobbied for his home state), highlights the surreal aspects of the competition.
As the film continues into the final launches and orbit missions of Glenn and Cooper, the overall atmosphere of competition against a backdrop of Cold War tension seeps into the family lives of the astronauts. Among others, Glenn's wife, Annie (Mary Jo Deschanel) had a particularly harrowing time in the public spotlight due to her innate stutter. John Glenn finally had to intercede to protect her from the ever oppressive press corps, whose every move in the film is characterized by the omnipresent hum and blast of cameras and flashes.
The film ends with an epilogue that documents the later activities of all the principal characters of the film.
As appearing in order of screen credits (main roles identified):
|Sam Shepard||Chuck Yeager|
|Scott Glenn||Alan Shepard|
|Ed Harris||John Glenn|
|Dennis Quaid||Gordon Cooper|
|Fred Ward||Gus Grissom|
|Barbara Hershey||Glennis Yeager|
|Kim Stanley||Pancho Barnes|
|Veronica Cartwright||Betty Grissom|
|Pamela Reed||Trudy Cooper|
|Scott Paulin||Deke Slayton|
|Charles Frank||Scott Carpenter|
|Lance Henriksen||Wally Schirra|
|Donald Moffat||Lyndon B. Johnson|
|Levon Helm||Jack Ridley / Narrator|
|Mary Jo Deschanel||Annie Glenn|
|Scott Wilson||Scott Crossfield|
|Kathy Baker||Louise Shepard|
|Mickey Crocker||Marge Slayton|
|Susan Kase||Rene Carpenter|
|Mittie Smith||Jo Schirra|
|William Russ||Slick Goodlin|
|Chuck Yeager||Fred, the bartender at Pancho's|
A number of cameos were actually based on archival footage:
|James D. Brubaker||Executive Producer|
|Bill Conti||Original Music|
|Douglas Stewart||Film Editing|
|W. Stewart Campbell||Art Direction|
|Art Scholl||Aerial photographer|
A full cast and production crew list is too lengthy to include, see: IMDb profile.
The screenplay was adapted by Philip Kaufman from the book, with some contributions from screenwriter William Goldman (Goldman dissociated himself with the film after quarreling with Kaufman about the story). The film was also directed by Kaufman. Critical reaction was generally positive, although some complained that the non-astronaut character portrayals (most notably Vice President Lyndon Johnson) were sometimes cartoon-like.
Produced at an estimated $22 million budget by The Ladd Company, the efforts at making an authentic feature led to the use of many full size aircraft, scale models and special effects to replicate the Edwards Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral scenes.
Location shooting took place primarily at the abandoned Hamilton Air Force Base in San Francisco which was converted into a sound stage for the numerous interior sets. No other location could substitute for the distinctive Edwards Air Force Base landscape which necessitated the entire production crew to move to the desert for the opening sequences that framed the story of the test pilots at Edwards.
A large number of film models were assembled for the film; of the more than 80 aircraft that were used, static mock-ups mingled with authentic aircraft of the period.Lt. Col. Duncan Wilmore (ret.) acted as the United States Air Force liaison to the production, beginning his role as a technical consultant in 1980 when the pre-production planning had begun. The first draft of the script in 1980 had concentrated only on the Mercury 7 but as subsequent revisions developed the treatment into more of the original story that Wolfe had envisioned, the aircraft of late-1940s that would have been seen at Edwards AFB, were required. Wilmore gathered World War II era "prop" aircraft including:
The first group were mainly "set dressing" on the ramp while the Confederate Air Force (now renamed the Commemorative Air Force) B-29 was modified to act as the "mothership" to carry the Bell X-1 and X-1A rocket-powered record-breakers.
Other "real" aircraft included the early jet fighters and trainers as well as current USAF and United States Navy examples. These flying aircraft and helicopters included:
A number of aircraft significant to the story had to be recreated. The first was an essentially static X-1 that had to at least roll and even realistically "belch flame" which was accomplished by a simulated rocket blast from the exhaust pipes. A series of wooden mock-up X-1s were used to depict interior shots of the cockpit, the mating up of the X-1 to a modified B-29 fuselage and bomb bay and ultimately to recreate flight in a combination of CGI and live-action photography. The "follow-up" X-1A was also an all-wooden model.
The U.S. Navy's Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket that Crossfield duelled with Yeager's X-1 and X-1A was recreated from a modified Hawker Hunter jet fighter. The climactic flight of Yeager in a NF-104 was originally to be made with a modified F-104 Starfighter but ultimately Wilmore made the decision that a Luftwaffe F-104G could work as a stand-in for the dual rocket and jet-powered test aircraft.
Wooden mock-ups of the Mercury space capsules also realistically depicted the NASA spacecraft.
For many of the flying sequences, scale models were produced by USFX Studios eschewing the standard computer images for large-scale miniatures that were filmed out of doors in natural sunlight against the sky. Even off-the-shelf plastic scale models were utilized for aerial scenes. The X-1, F-104 and B-29 models were built in large numbers as a number of the more than 40 scale models were destroyed in the process of filming. The blending together of miniatures, full-scale mock-ups and actual aircraft was seamlessly integrated into the live-action footage. The addition of original newsreel footage was used sparingly but to effect to provide another layer of authenticity.
Wolfe made no secret that he disliked the film, especially because of changes from his original book. William Goldman, involved in early drafts of the script, also disliked the choices made by Kaufman, saying in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? that Kaufman believed that Yeager was a true hero, and only he had the titular "right stuff", while the astronauts had just gotten lucky and did not match up to him in any way. Critics, however, generally were favorable toward the film. Robert Osborne, who introduced showings of the movie on Turner Classic Movies, was quite enthusiastic about the film. The cameo appearance by the real Chuck Yeager in the film was a particular "treat" which Osborne cited. The recounting of many of the legendary aspects of Yeager's life was left in place, including the naming of the X-1, "Glamorous Glennis" after his wife and his superstitious preflight habit of asking for a stick of Beemans chewing gum from his best friend, Jack Ridley.
When the film came out, former (and future) astronaut and Senator John Glenn (Ohio) was running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. It was felt that the movie might help his chances, but in fact, his candidacy did not go far.
While the movie took liberties with certain historical facts as part of "dramatic license", criticism focused on one: the portrayal of Gus Grissom panicking when his Liberty Bell 7 spacecraft sank following splashdown. Most historians, as well as engineers working for or with NASA and many of the related contractor agencies within the aerospace industry, are now convinced that the premature detonation of the spacecraft hatch's explosive bolts was caused by failure not associated with direct human error or deliberate detonation at the hands of Grissom. This determination had, in fact, been made long before the movie was filmed, and even Tom Wolfe's book only states that this possibility was considered, not that it was actually judged as being the cause of the accident.
However, the book makes clear that, at the time, Grissom was thought to have erred, and this is what is portrayed in the film. Grissom was given only token appreciation by NASA, as compared with the acclaim for Shepard and Glenn. NASA's long-term confidence in Grissom was demonstrated by his close involvement with the Gemini and early Apollo programs, which are beyond the scope of the film (and book). In fact, Grissom was assigned to command the first flights of both Gemini and Apollo. Ironically, and tragically, Grissom died in the Apollo 1 fire because there was no quick-opening hatch on the Block 1 Apollo Command Module – a design choice made because NASA had determined that the explosion in the hatch on Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 had been most likely self-initiated.
Another fact that had been altered in the film was the statement by Trudy Cooper, who commented that she "wondered how they would've felt if every time their husband went in to make a deal, there was a one-in-four chance he wouldn't come out of that meeting." According to the book, this actually reflected the 23% chance of dying during a 20-year career as a normal pilot. For a test pilot, these odds were higher, at 53%, but were still considerably less than the movie implied. In addition, the movie merely used the fictional Mrs. Cooper as a vehicle for the statement; the real Mrs. Cooper is not known to have said this.
It won Academy Awards for Sound Effects Editing; Best Film Editing; Best Music, Original Score and Best Sound. It was also nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sam Shepard), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography and Best Picture.
On 23 June 2003, Warner Brothers released a two-DVD Special Edition that featured scene-specific commentaries with key cast and crew members, deleted scenes, three documentaries on the making of the film including interviews with Mercury astronauts and Chuck Yeager, and a feature-length documentary, John Glenn: American Hero.
In addition, the British Film Institute published a book on the movie by Tom Charity in October 1997 that offered a detailed analysis and behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
In 2005, Tom Hanks had expressed interest in a radio interview in producing a new Right Stuff miniseries in hopes of giving the history and the myths associated a bit more in-depth representation.