The Right Stuff
Today, it takes a horrible tragedy for most people to even be aware of the space program. In the wake of the recent disaster involving the Columbia shuttle it is only fitting that the DVD of ‘The Right Stuff’ is being re-released as a special edition. While someone my daughter’s age grew up in a world where man has always walked on the moon it was a lot different for those around my age. As a child I would sit in front of the television, my eyes intently focused on the early missions of the Mercury program, America’s initial foray into outer space. Based on the novel by Tom Wolfe the Right Stuff provides a deep look into the embryonic American space program. It all started with the launch of the first Russian unmanned satellites. You have to remember that this was the early fifties, a time when Senator Joe McCarthy saw communists everywhere and the ‘Red Menace’ threatened the American way of life. Not wanting to live under ‘Red’ moon American politicians began a feverish push to put an American on the moon. Former German rocket scientist lead by Werner von Braun began the technical side of this American imperative but the most important part of the program would be the brave men, test pilots for the armed services that really pushed the boundaries to make the first steps on the moon a reality. The Mercury 7, as they were called where men that embodied the sprit of this young space program. John Glenn (Ed Harris) was a fiercely loyal and devoted Marine. His body was not the only thing in top shape; he had an analytical mind, a sense of humor and an unshakable love for his wife and country. Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) with his very politically incorrect humor showed commitment and dedication shared by these men. Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) was the typical test pilot, he live just beyond the envelope. The film shows what happens when a small, elite group of highly competitive men are brought together. Rather than turning on each other to compete they turned on the German scientist. The scientist wanted a monkey to be first in space, the new group of astronauts banded together explaining that money drove the program and ‘no Buck Rogers, no bucks’. When the scientists refused to add pilot controls or a window the band of astronauts again stood their ground. The film showed that these men did have the right stuff, a dedication few could achieve. They film also shows the tribulations of their wives, married to such over the top men they too had a lot to bare and like their husbands they rose to the challenge even though the American public only got to see the perfect home maker instead of the incredibly strong women they where.
With a film such as this you need a cast up to the challenge of portraying these American icons. What is rare for a film made in the 80s such a cast was found. With few exceptions every cast member fills their role so realistically you will often feel that you are watching an actual documentary of the times. The cast also had the difficult job of portraying these men and women warts and all. With people so ingrained in the American consciousness as the true heroes they where each actor shows that this heroism was underscored by actual people with their own flaws. Most notable in this area was the presentation of Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, the second Mercury astronaut to fly into space. He loved to flit with the ladies, he had dreams of making it big and his mission was marred by the loss of his capsule when the hatch came off after reentry at sea. Grissom always maintained the hatch just blew but many felt he had a bout of claustrophobia. Wards performance gives insight into what this man must have felt. Harris as John Glenn was perfect. Nicknamed the Clean Marine he stood fast to protect his wife, who had a speech impediment, from being forced into the spotlight. At one point he openly defied LBJ and put his career on the line rather than back down. The actresses like Veronica Cartwright (Betty Grissom) and Pamela Reed (Trudy Cooper) aptly demonstrate the strength, forgiveness and devotion these women showed. Although they are largely overshadowed in history by their husbands these actresses demonstrate how these women where as much a part of the early space program as the men.
In order to make a project of this scope work you need a writer and director whose dedication approaches that of his historic subjects. With Phillip Kaufman such an individual was found. His credits are impressive having been a writer with a couple of the Indiana Jones flicks, and writer/director for such films as ‘Henry and June’, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ and ‘Quills’. This is a film that serves as a premiere example for those dedicated to presentation in the original aspect ratio. Each frame of this film is composed for the full widescreen picture. While short on the special effect required today the power of the story is what the audience is permitted to focus upon. Kaufman is a director that can get the very best out of his cast and crew. With such powerful and talented actors and actresses in each scene he must have felt something of the feeling on being among the people they portrayed. He got these actors to work together for something great.
This DVD replaces the previous edition by Warner Brothers. The anamorphic transfer seemed somewhat cleaner than the original which may just be better job with the mastering. It is much darker than the old flippy version and there was some edge problems but considering how long the film is and how much it had to be compressed to fit on a single side it looks pretty good. Many will prefer the older version for the picture. The compression problems will prompt many to stay with the older version because of this affect on the video quality. The Dolby 5.1 audio was spectacular. The roar of the rockets and jets fill the room. Among the hefty extras is a biography of John Glenn, a scene specific commentary with Kaufman and select members of the cast, three additional commentaries with the cast and some of the real life people they portrayed, 13 additional scenes exclusive NASA footage. In all Warner Brothers did an excellent job here, one worthy of the subject matter and historic figures it covers. If you are a baby boomer than this is must have disc. It captures a part of our youth that we all remember. For those a bit younger you still should get it and learn how mankind took those first steps to the moon.