RogerBW's Blog

The Right Stuff 31 October 2021

1983 aviation/space, dir. Philip Kaufman, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn; IMDb / AllMovie. As the cutting edge of aviation shifts from transonic flight to spaceflight, NASA needs a new sort of hero.

This is a film that should be aimed directly at me. I grew up as a fan of spaceflight – Apollo was the thing I just missed through being too young but I devoured books – and this is the story of the very early (American) flights. But somehow it never quite catches my imagination; perhaps it's too determined to show its astronauts as just regular guys contrasted with the heroic test pilots like Chuck Yeager, perhaps it's just that it's over three hours long and frankly slow-moving at times.

There's certainly interest here, though. Unlike other male-focused films I've seen recently it admits that women exist and are people with their own feelings, even if it only has one feeling to assign them ("I'm scared for my husband doing this dangerous thing"). The flight footage stands up well even now. But in an effort to make the astronauts relatable human characters rather than tin-plated heroes I think Kaufman goes too far, showing them as frat-house jokers rather than as, well, test pilots. (Who may join in the macho crap when they're on show, but unlike most fast-jet pilots tend to be very thoughtful.)

This defangs the film's basic conflict, between the engineers who just wanted a biological cargo and the pilots who wanted to fly the things. There are only two points in the film where having a thinking human aboard a space vehicle could potentially make a difference; in one (Grissom's landing) it's strongly hinted that he makes things worse, and in the other (Glenn's re-entry) he doesn't make things any better. You could make a case that Glenn at least did make things better than remote control could have managed – I wouldn't necessarily agree with you but the argument is there – but the film never bothers to do this.

At the same time, and it's subtle enough that I can't say whether it's deliberate on Kaufman's part given how unsubtle the rest is, I felt a tension between the pressure to be conforming 1950s people, just one of the boys, and the pressure to be the best; it's Glenn who's shown as mastering that, the first of them to jump up in public and say "yeah, I go to church".

(Was I the only person to laugh when the astronauts are being feted "Texas style" and the next shot is a pot full of beans? That is the thing you Do Not Put in a chilli in Texas…)

It may be that this film had to happen first to break the image of the perfect heroes and allow more honest representations, but for me at least it doesn't hold together all that well as a film.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.


  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 11:50am on 31 October 2021

    I think this piece sums up why I don't go all googly eyed fan girl about it. I am old enough to have been a kid who was obsessed with space, and as you say this film doesn't quite deliver.

    Now, The Dish, much lower key film about the Aussie radio astronomers doing their bit is a lot more film, even though it doesn't deliver the thrills of the landing, because it's not that sort of movie is worth watching.

    Apollo 13 is still the leader of exciting 'real' space movies.

  2. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:58pm on 01 November 2021

    So this completely fails to mention the times having humans in the loop definitely did improve the outcome, like Gordo's manual re-entry on the last Mercury flight when almost everything had stopped working, or Armstrongs recovery from the unintended rapid roll on Gemini (which admittedly may be beyond the end of the era the film covers).

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 02:13pm on 01 November 2021

    Yes, Mercury-Atlas 9 is barely mentioned. And the film ends very much with the end of the Mercury programme, which to be fair I gather the book does too; Wolfe had planned to write a history of the whole thing up to the end of Apollo, but got so interested in the Mercury flights that he stopped there.

  4. Posted by John Dallman at 11:31pm on 01 November 2021

    The book may well be rather better. It held my interest thoroughly, and goes very well with Dan Simmons' Phases of Gravity.

  5. Posted by John P at 08:36pm on 02 November 2021

    Less well known but equally "Right Stuff": https://www.nasa.gov/feature/how-11-deaf-men-helped-shape-nasas-human-spaceflight-program

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 08:42pm on 02 November 2021

    And indeed the (unofficial) Mercury 13.

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