Is more like Sheer Damn Luck Stuff or Flying by the Seats of Your Pants Stuff.
After the second world war, the US ran a testing programme for high-speed, rocket-powered aircraft at Muroc field, later Edwards air force base, in southern California. The era also saw the early days of the space programme and the selection of the US’s first astronauts, known as the Mercury Seven.
Tom Wolfe hung out with the Mercury Seven, absorbed their culture and jargon, watched as leather helmets and goggles were replaced by shiny silver suits with NASA logos. And wrote THE book.
Wolfe’s best-selling book was adapted for the screen by William Goldman, who then had a series of “nightmarish” meetings with director Kaufman; Goldman walked out, and the final writing credit is Kaufman’s alone. Wolfe’s book began with Yeager, who Goldman wanted to dump because he had nothing to do with the central story, but “Phil’s heart was with Yeager,” Goldman writes in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade. Goldman wanted to focus the selection and training of the Mercury Seven, and on three crucial flights. But Kaufman of course was correct: The Right Stuff is a greater film because it is not a straightforward historical account but pulls back to chronicle the transition from Yeager and other test pilots to a mighty public relations enterprise.
The film begins with test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) going for a drink in a local bar, and casually signing up to break the sound barrier. “If you ask me, I think the damn thing doesn’t exist,” he says gruffly. Then he falls off his horse while riding it around the desert in a daring competition with his firecracker wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey). He breaks two ribs, but pretends to be fine so they won’t take him off the mission – and then successfully pilots the Bell X-1, becoming the first man to go faster than the speed of sound. Yeager appears to have sprung straight from the Big Book of American Heroes – strong jaw, cowboy hat, horse sense, stoic manner – but he really was like this, and doubtless still is (he is now 95 years old). He last broke the sound barrier in 2012, aged 89, in an F-15. Total badass.
Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., President Dwight D Eisenhower (Robert Beer) and Senator Lyndon B Johnson (Donald Moffat) are upset that the Soviets have gone and launched Sputnik-1 into outer space before they got their act together. “How the hell did they ever get ahead of us?” Johnson bellows. The answer is swiftly and amusingly illustrated when his aides cannot find the plug socket to get the meeting-room projector working. The chief scientist is unflustered. “Our Germans are better than their Germans,” he says, alluding to the fact that both the Soviet and US rocket and space programmes after the war owed a great deal to former Nazi scientists.
When Robert Beer leans under the shadows, you catch your breath – you’re looking full into the face of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Donald Moffat has created a perfect LBJ caricature. John F. Kennedy is there as well, but in newsreel footage so skilfully intercut that he also seems to be a member of the cast.
As the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space, beating the Americans again, by less than a month, Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) has to settle for being the second man in space. As the Americans plan to retaliate with the first manned space flight, some think they should use an animal rather than a person. “The first American in space is not going to be a chimpanzee,” growls Eisenhower. Possible candidates for astronauts included surfers, acrobats and rally drivers (“They already have their own helmets,” says a scientific adviser, chirpily. “I don’t know if that’s a factor.”). The film is right that it was Eisenhower who insisted that astronauts be drawn from a field of test pilots – even though they would have little role in actually piloting the craft.
As Alan Shepard waits for take-off, he desperately needs to pee and has to go in his own spacesuit. This is accurate. The response of the German scientist to the request for urinating in the space suit is hilarious. “We did not think if this! It is only a 15 minute flight.” The scientists failed to account for the hours and hours of pre-flight testing during which time Shepard was strapped in the capsule. Because of the placement of the porthole windows, Shepard was unable to catch a glimpse of the stars, and he was strapped in too tight to experience weightlessness. Human chimpanzee.
Never far from the centre of the flame is the astronaut’s battle against becoming “lab rabbits”, subject to the prying and poking of white-smocked researchers who seem convinced that a chimpanzee can be trained to do anything that a man can do in space, and be far more tractable in the process. Later, there is the battle with the research scientists, who have prepared a capsule without windows, escape hatch or steering controls. And still later is the fight with NASA’s PR people (in the person of John P. Ryan), who want to extract every last inch of publicity from their daring exploits, no matter how much of their privacy is invaded.
Two men haunt Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff. One speaks little, the other hardly at all. The laconic one is Chuck Yeager, generally acknowledged as the best test pilot of all time, who judges himself by his achievements, not his words. The other is the minister at the Air Force testing grounds in the California desert, who officiates at the frequent funerals and is a spectral presence at the bar where the pilots and their women drink.
A newly arrived wife asks how her husband can get his photo on the wall. The answer: He has to die. We overhear a snatch of dialogue: “Sixty-two men in the last 32 weeks. You know what that average is?” Every time a pilot tests a new plane, he has a one in four chance of dying – or, as the pilots like to say, “screwing the pooch”.
Seen in the shadow of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, The Right Stuff is a grim reminder of the cost of sending humans into space. It is also the story of two kinds of courage, both rare, and of the way the “race for space” was transformed from a secret military program into a public relations triumph.
Reporters at one of the early flights of the Bell X-1 rocket plane are told “No press! Those are orders. National security.” Before long everyone is elbowing into the spotlight. The first seven “astronauts” are introduced along with their wives and families, and Henry Luce writes a $500,000 check to buy their exclusive stories for his Life magazine. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson fumes in his car when John Glenn’s wife Annie, a shy stutterer, won’t let him into her house along with the network crews. “You need more than speed records in this day and age,” a program publicist explains. “You need coverage.” The Mercury program has to compete for funding with other budget items, and as the astronauts tell one another “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
When the Kaufman film was released in 1983, it was hailed as one of the great American films, capturing the spirit and reflecting the reporting of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the early days of the space program – a book that argued that Yeager (Sam Shepard) was so influential that his manner of speech was unconsciously echoed by commercial airline pilots while making announcements from the cockpit. Yet the movie was a puzzling flop at the box office. Some blamed confusion in the public mind between the movie and John Glenn’s run for public office.
More likely, even then, audiences were not ready for a movie that approached the space program with scepticism, comedy and irony. The original astronauts laboured under no similar handicap; they were heroes to Life magazine, but knew Werner von Braun and the German scientists behind the first launches would have preferred to have monkeys in the capsules. Yeager, who felt they were riding, not flying, the capsules, called them “Spam in a can,” and in a famous scene the astronauts argue for a porthole even though the designers argue they have no need to see anything during their brief rides into space – no reason to do anything but sit tight.
But then John Glenn (Ed Harris) used his piloting skills to find the exact angle of entry and save a Mercury capsule from incinerating – something no monkey could have done – and later the desperate improvisations of the Apollo 13 crew saved that mission and their lives, inspiring Ron Howard’s 1995 movie. There was nothing the Challenger and Columbia crews crew could have done to save themselves, restarting the controversy over manned versus unmanned flights. But in those early days when the Soviets were the first to put a man into orbit, there was no way an American would not follow. The “space race” continues to be symbolised by human astronauts, even now when it is less a race than the loneliness of long-distance fliers.
In early scenes, as Yeager and his test pilot rival Scott Crossfield try to break through Mach 1, then Mach 2, then “punch a hole in the sky”, to “where the demon lives, out at about Mach 2.3”, they’re watched by friends on the ground who lean against Jeeps, smoking cigarettes. Before many more years, launches pre-empt all other TV programming, and newsman Eric Severeid (playing himself) informs television viewers they’re about to witness “the greatest death-defying stunt ever broadcast”. By then the “capsule” had been renamed the “spacecraft” – even though it could not fly on its own and, smaller than a teepee, worked much like Evil Knievel’s original vehicles by strapping a passenger into a container on top of a rocket and blasting off. (After one launch, a pilot informs Mission Control, “the altimeter is working!”)
Those were the first small steps for man, giant leaps for mankind, and at the end of the road was the 1969 moon landing and other astonishing triumphs. But at first the idea was simply to get an American up there, pronto. “I for one do not intend to go to sleep by the light of a Communist moon,” declared Vice President Johnson, and Glenn agrees to take a ride on an untested rocket he is warned is dangerous.
That took courage, and in one of his longest speeches in the movie, Yeager says so: To sit on top of tons of explosives and be blasted into orbit was more daring than flying an untested aircraft. The astronauts of course were test pilots, too, good and brave ones; it’s just that at first their piloting skills were not needed. “We are the monkey,” says Grissom.
The star of the Mercury Seven is John Glenn (Ed Harris) – for he is both handsome and incredibly good at spouting wholesome patriotic platitudes in front of newsmen. “I just thank God I live in a country where the best and the finest in a man can be brought out,” he says. He is also the only astronaut portrayed with a sense of morality that they were now public figures and responsible for a certain standard of behaviour. The other men are shown to be “rough around the edges” – married men who slept with younger female fans, cursed, drank, and made off-colour and culturally inappropriate jokes.
Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff has been controversial for its portrayal of astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward). Grissom’s Liberty Bell 7 craft sank in the sea after the hatch opened too quickly on landing. Some blamed Grissom for panicking and opening the hatch himself. Grissom blamed it on a technical error. The film avoids showing the critical moment and thus leaves the question of what happened unanswered. In fact, Grissom may well not have been at fault – and the film is kinder to him than the book. Whatever the truth, the incident gives it a chance to show accurately the pressure that was on these men. “I wanted to eat in the White House!” his wife bawls afterwards. “I wanted to talk to Jackie [Kennedy] about … things!” Grissom was killed a few years later in the Apollo 1 fire of 1967 (shown in First Man).
Kaufman’s love for the Yeager character pays off in the magical closing sequence of the film, when the “best pilot in the world” eyeballs anew Air Force jet and says, “I have a feeling this little old plane right here might be able to beat that Russian record.” And it nearly does. On an unauthorized flight, he takes it almost to 120,000 feet (36,600 meters) – the stars are visible – before plane and pilot fall exhausted back to the earth. Yup, Chuck Yeager crashed a Lockheed NF-104A, and he survived. Both the crash and the consequences.