Another one that slipped through the cracks in the wake of Derby Film Festival, but here it is finally. Darrell Buxton’s introduction to Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff from Tuesday 3rd May.
Good evening and welcome to Derby Film Festival, day five. The main theme of the film festival this year is ‘Journey’, and the movie we’ve got for you tonight encapsulates that concept in so many different ways. It’s Philip Kaufman’s THE RIGHT STUFF, released in 1983 and based on Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction study of the NASA astronaut training programme, published four years earlier in the late seventies.
By the time of Wolfe’s book, government and public enthusiasm for outer space was waning. Hard to believe, I know, but the moon landings were passé, the suggestion of travel to and colonisation of our neighbour planets was outmoded and seen as the province of 1950s pulp novels and trashy science fiction flicks, plus the money was running out. A new generation was more excited by Luke Skywalker and Han Solo than by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin; and it’s telling that in 1979 when Wolfe’s book hit the stores, one of that year’s surprise sleeper hits at the cinema box office had been CAPRICORN ONE, a paranoid diversion which took as its main premise the idea, increasingly popular among conspiracy theorists and beyond, that the Apollo moon landings had been faked.
In an America still reeling from Vietnam and Watergate, heroes were in short supply. Even the astronaut legends had been tarnished by the technical failings of the Apollo 13 mission and the potentially fatal splashdown of Apollo 15; fortunately on those occasions, all survived to tell the tale. Wolfe’s recounting of the true epic saga of space training attempted to redress the balance. Tom Wolfe had originally been assigned by ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine to give a counter-culture spin on reporting NASA’s final moon mission to date, December 1972’s launch of Apollo 17 – his resulting four-part feature, titled ‘Post-Orbital Remorse’, examined the depression suffered by several returning participants in the space programme, but in researching this topic Wolfe became hooked on the whole wider subject and began to formulate ideas for a fuller study. He’d spoken to Brigadier General Chuck Yeager to acquire background for his proposed extension of this commission, and hit on the ingenious idea of tracing the story right back from figures like Yeager – not astronauts, but former fighter pilots now flying jets in peacetime aeronautical tests. Having already outlined and substantially completed his chapters on the Apollo forerunner, Project Mercury, Wolfe now portrayed the test pilots as exerting a key influence on development of American space exploration. Although these men were often deemed insufficiently qualified to actually take part in the rocket launches, a controversial decision which you’ll see covered in the movie, Wolfe argues that without these guys no-one would have come close to setting foot on the moon.
‘The Right Stuff’, then, may appear rather curious and not immediately obvious as suitable material for Hollywood – it’s a very askew take on its theme, and might be considered by lazy or unimaginative readers to have only told half of the story. But Wolfe painted such a stirring, vivid, and robust picture of these pioneers that he virtually changed the way in which the U.S.A. saw its spacemen; perhaps Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man” was more the end of a long journey than it was the beginning of a new trek, and I think history and the fading of the interplanetary dream has proved Wolfe right.
The 1983 movie version is something of a modern epic; there’s three and a quarter hours of it. But sometimes events merit such a retelling, and director Philip Kaufman, of OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS fame, makes THE RIGHT STUFF a breeze to watch. He and his utterly wonderful cast manage to keep it all fairly light and easy-going, possibly a genuine reflection of the camaraderie, companionship, rivalry and banter this bunch of wild-blue-yonder, up up and away travellers experienced in reality. That cast includes nobody that you’d call a superstar, but instead gives us a selection of the very best, most solid and dependable American character actors of the day. Two of my personal favourites, the much-underrated Fred Ward and Ed Harris, achieve miracles with performances that ought to have grabbed far greater acclaim than they did; Charles Frank, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Lance Henriksen and others offer mighty contributions too, and in this very male tale, the women work extra hard to also make a big impression, with Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed and Barbara Hershey providing notable back-up albeit with their feet firmly rooted to planet Earth.
Audiences at the time had heightened expectations when it came to the cosmic and the interstellar, palettes spoiled by the rich cuisine of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, the fast food of STAR WARS, and the what-the-hell-have-I-just-eaten? of FLASH GORDON, and may well have come to THE RIGHT STUFF with visions of moonscapes, craters, aliens, explosions, laserblasts. But this is different – a true story, in every sense. True to the reputation, the gallantry, the code of conduct, the friendship, the mutual admiration, and the spirit, of these magnificent men in their flying machines.