Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Gus Cileone: Why I Love THE RIGHT STUFF

BMFI will screen The Right Stuff on Tuesday, August 21 as part of the "Director in Focus: Philip Kaufman" film series. BMFI patron and film aficionado Gus Cileone tells us why he loves this Kaufman classic. Check back for additional posts by BMFI staff and community members that explore the movies we love.

Why I Love The Right Stuff
By Gus Cileone, BMFI Patron, Student, and Volunteer

[Spoiler alert.]

There were many fine films in 1983—including The Big Chill and Terms of Endearment—but for my money, The Right Stuff, directed by Philip Kaufman, based on the book by Tom Wolfe, was the best movie that year. One thing this film is so successful at doing is showing heroes as real people with definable character traits. It accomplishes this feat without diminishing what these men achieved, or undermining the courage needed to face the unknown obstacles confronting them.

The tone is set by the opening voiceover describing test pilots in epic hero terms as they chase the "demon" out there in the sky. The men’s quest to break the sound barrier and "punch a hole in the sky" emphasizes the theme that people must break through the barriers that try to contain them.

The pilots are all distinct personalities, revealed with humor and insight. John Glenn comes off like a squeaky clean Marine. Ed Harris even looks like Mr. Clean in the TV commercials. He can't curse when he is angry, and leaves the profanity to the other pilots to fill in the objectionable words when he speaks. He is admirable as he backs up his wife, who has a speech impediment, so that she doesn't have to let in the press and the grandstanding Lyndon Johnson when they are camping out on her front lawn. Alan Shepard, played by Scott Glenn, is a mischievous prankster, who does inappropriate Hispanic impersonations of then-comic Bill Dana's politically incorrect persona. Gordon Cooper is a bragging charmer, played by Dennis Quaid, who keeps asking "Who is the best pilot you ever saw? You're looking at him." He is so cool that he has to be awakened after falling asleep in the space capsule just before his launch. His pal, Fred Ward's Gus Grissom, calls him a "hot dog," and there is a chilling scene as he holds up a burnt-to-a-crisp hot dog at a barbecue, which strikes Cooper’s wife as a bad omen. Grissom is a man of few words, and is stoical most of the time. But he knows how to get the other astronauts to unite and take control of their missions. He emphasizes how they must show their superiors that the test pilots are not just the equivalents of chimpanzees. He makes those running the program realize how much they need the astronauts, because they are the ones who generate funding, when he says, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers."

The pilots of Mercury 7 (from left to right): Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), John Glenn (Ed Harris), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen).
Sam Shepard's Chuck Yeager, the test pilot who first broke the sound barrier and who refused to become an astronaut, is the most iconic character portrayed in the film. After breaking the barrier, he howls at the moon, presaging the time when man would land on earth's satellite. He is the essence of cool, quiet manliness. But when he gets knocked off his horse after hitting a tree branch while galloping after his wife (Barbara Hershey), he tells her, "I'm a fearless man, but I'm scared to death of you." One of the last scenes in the film has Yeager ejecting from a doomed test plane. You can't help but be moved when Yeager, his face greasy and looking burned, strides away from the wreckage. One of the soldiers asks, "Is that a man?" Another says, "Yeah, you're damn right it is!" Machismo in the most dignified sense of the term. When the bar where the first test pilots congregated burns down, it symbolizes the passing of an era, as Yeager figuratively passes the baton to the next generation of "star voyagers."

Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) returns after a successful test flight.
These men are supported by their long suffering wives, who shudder every time the "man in black" appears to give them the bad news whenever one of their pilot husbands crashes. Mrs. Cooper (Pamela Reed) leaves at first but later returns to back up her husband. Mrs. Grissom (Veronica Cartwright) rails against the military because they owe her for her sacrifices. As one of the wives says, the military spent a lot of money to train their men, but nothing to prepare the wives to be fearless. But these women obviously were attracted to these men; as Mrs. Yeager says, she must have been drawn to a man who "pushed the outside of the envelope."

Louise Shepard (Kathy Baker), accompanied by her fellow pilot wives, listens as her husband's fate is revealed over the phone.
Besides showing the challenges that these men face, the film is notable for its humor. Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer are very funny as they show films of potential astronauts to the President and his top officials. They say surfers would be good for splashdowns and car racers even have their own helmets. Eisenhower comes off pretty well as he rejects the outrageous nominees and insists on test pilots, whom his advisers consider to be uncontrollable. Since the Russians were the first to send up an orbiting satellite, our technical ability is questioned by these advisers. But they are assured by rocket scientist Wernher von Braun that "our German scientists are better than their German scientists."

The best comic scenes center on the tests that the men must pass, which look like torture treatments. You have to laugh when Scott Glenn can't remove his arm off of the table after a needle has overstimulated his muscles. The scene where he has a balloon inflated in his rectum and he must run to the bathroom to relieve himself is also hysterical. Another hilarious sequence is when the men need to provide sperm samples. Cooper knows Glenn is in the next bathroom stall because he is humming the Marine Corps theme song. Cooper tries to drown it out with the Air Force counterpart, and the sounds get louder as they race toward their respective climaxes. Of course, the scene that shows Mission Control having no contingency for going to the bathroom in space for the first flight overflows with humor. We roar as Shepard, who had drunk numerous cups of coffee, grimaces and must request permission to relieve his bladder into his spacesuit.

The pilots undergo one of their many pre-departure tests.
This film expertly shows the bravery and failings of these space pioneers, and it, along with Apollo 13, reminds us of a can-do America where "failure is not an option."

Gus Cileone is a retired government employee who worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs. He has received several writing awards and has published two novels, A Lesson in Murder and Feast or Famine. You can visit his web site at www.augustuscileone.com.

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