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Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris and Dennis Quaid star in Philip Kaufman's slyly comic film about the US Mercury 7 space programme. Oscar-winning epic adapted from Tom Wolfe's novel
Though overlooked at the box-office in 1983, Philip Kaufman's account of the early days of the space race is a wildly ambitious venture that boldly goes where few historical epics had gone before. Grand in every sense (it clocks in at just over three hours), it contains elements of western-style adventure, sophisticated satire and some slyly subversive comedy. Most of all though it's a film about the function of national heroes and their uneasy relationship with the State.
The Right Stuff opens in 1947. The first section of the film deals with the attempts of US test-pilot Chuck Yeager (Shepard) to break the sound barrier. Then the Russians launch their Sputnik programme and the space race is under way. Seven of America's best airmen are chosen to man the US's own rockets and central to the film are questions about their role. Are they valiant space cowboys untroubled by fear, or monkeys caught up in a dangerous propaganda war?
With so much ground to cover this might easily have drifted out of orbit. Instead Kaufman keeps it fast, funny and frequently irreverent. Early scenes see the US government considering acrobats and stock car drivers as potential spacemen (Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer's NASA recruiters, something of a comedy double act, make thse suggestions). Other comic sequences include acerbic astronaut Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr (Glenn) bursting for a wee on the launch-pad ("Request permission to relieve bladder.").
Kaufman understands the space programme's role in generating national pride at a time when it was sorely needed and the film is sharp in its depiction of the accompanying media frenzy. There's no doubt it's also revisionist and for every myth that's exploded, another is set up in its place. But the combination of the personal, the public and the political, and the highly impressive aerial action sequences (made long before CGI) make this an astute and highly entertaining film which, to borrow a phrase from Yeager himself, really does "push back the envelope".
History, melodrama, comedy and satire are skilfully combined in this consistently exciting adventure. Visually and dramatically it rarely sags, there's a vivid array of characters and though it's a film with issues, these never eclipse the human drama.
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