Foremost among the pilots is Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), who becomes the first man to break the sound barrier. He also breaks other speed and altitude records over the years, despite the risk to his life. Yeager's record-breaking rival is Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson). The new test pilot in town is cocky young Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid).
In response to Sputnik, NASA is launched under President Eisenhower (Robert Beer), who insists that the first astronauts be test pilots. Government agents go to Edwards Air Force Base to sign up pilots. Cooper agrees to try out, along with pilot buddy Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). Yeager turns down the opportunity, and derides the space program as "spam in a can."
Many candidates are tested, brought in from military bases around the country. In the end, seven are chosen in 1959 to be the Mercury Astronauts. In addition to Cooper and Grissom, there's All-American Hero John Glenn (Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), and two less memorable astronauts, Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin).
The first American in space turns out to be a chimpanzee. After the Russians get there first, there is one American flight after another, though Slayton never gets a mission. Grissom's Mercury-Redstone 4 mission ends on a down note after the capsule hatch door opens prematurely, sinking the capsule, though Grissom survives. John Glenn orbits the Earth in Mercury-Atlas 6, and survives a scary re-entry with a purportedly loose heat shield. Carpenter has his turn in Mercury-Atlas 7, then comes Shirra in Sigma 7, and the film ends in 1963 with Cooper's long-awaited day of glory in the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission.
How others will see it. Despite effusive critical praise, The Right Stuff was a box office disappointment. It was nominated for a slew of festival circuit awards, including eight Oscars. It won four Academy Awards, though it lost out in the most significant categories of Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Cinematography.
The Right Stuff did become a hit as a video release. Its reputation grew throughout the 1980s. Today at imdb.com, the film has a big 61K user votes, slightly more than Terms of Endearment, which won Best Picture over The Right Stuff.
The Right Stuff also has the higher user rating, a highly respectable 7.8 out of 10. Those over 45 grade it best, 8.0, while non-Americans see it lower, 7.6, as they understandably feel less patriotism over American right-stuff glory.
The user reviews are predominantly favorable to fawning. One writer calls it "the best American film of the past 25 years" (this was back in 2000). Some point out some of the many historical inaccuracies, but such nit-pickers are decidedly in the minority.
How I felt about it. Watching The Right Stuff as a fan instead of a critic, I can agree with those who assert that the film is a fun presentation of an era of history that seemed fairly recent back in 1983, but is now outside of most people's living memory. Though not so for writer/director Philip Kaufman, still with us at the age of 85.
But the film does have its issues. One way to trim its three-hour-plus running time is to omit the Aborigines, who use their special magic powers to guide John Glenn's troubled capsule back to Earth. It turned out that there was nothing wrong with the heat shield. It was just a faulty indicator.
The Cooper feud with Glenn over bedding astronaut groupies is resolved too easily. Yeager's F-104 flight was scheduled. Capsule designs are approved slowly, by committee, and are not decided upon exclusively by either astronauts or German engineers. Jose Jiminez did not "become" an astronaut until 1961, two years after the Mercury Seven were chosen. Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club burned down a full decade before it did in the film, and it would soon have been leveled anyway since the Air Force wanted the land for a base expansion.
These are relatively minor problems compared to my biggest beef with The Right Stuff. Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffat), at the time Vice President but later President, is portrayed as a complete Southern buffoon. It's embarrassing to watch. Equally outlandish are Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer as dufus Federal agents. The comedy continues with bathroom humor: sperm samples, enemas resulting in goose steps down long halls, and urine in Grissom's spacesuit.
During the film's middle, when no one's life is in danger, the humor actually dominates the picture, as if it is heading toward a remake of Don Knotts in The Reluctant Astronaut (1967). Again, this doesn't make the film bad, but the change of course is nonetheless unwelcome.
The film also implies that Chuck Yeager regretted not attempting to become an astronaut. Not one to enjoy the limelight, Yeager outlived all of the Mercury Seven, and even outlived Sam Shepard, who plays him in this film. In 1967, the Air Force promoted him to Brigadier General.