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RIGHT STUFF, THE

From the Oct. 21, 1983, Deseret News

THE RIGHT STUFF — Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Quaid, Pamela Reed, Sam Shepard, Kim Stanley, Fred Ward; written & directed by Philip Kaufman; rated PG (profanity, sex talk, brief nudity in a Sally Rand dance).

Question: Putting aside John Glenn's current political aspirations and the gigantic amount of hoopla surrounding the film, how does "The Right Stuff" stack up cinematically?

Answer: It has all the right stuff.

This three-hour epic spanning the history of aviation between 1947 and 1963 is an incredible film, focusing equally on the early days of the of the X-15 tests at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert; the leader of those test pilots, Charles "Chuck" Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier; the seven astronauts who were chosen for the Mercury Project, the U.S. entry into the space race; the project itself, along with indoctrinations and testing programs to which the astronauts were subjected; and the eventual insistence by the seven that they have some control over the aircraft, rather than just being "Spam in a can."

My personal test for a film this long is whether I wonder what time it is somewhere during the picture. But when "The Right Stuff" wrapped up, I didn't want it to end. Nowhere did it feel long.

More than just a flag-waving tribute to the astronaut program, on one level "The Right Stuff" is a piercing look at the men who were the astronauts, their wives, and their personal ambitions and aspirations. These are three-dimensional people, and all the warts are there. No image of knights on shining space shuttles here; you witness the human side, often a not-so-pleasant side of their lives.

On another level, it is a mystical search for the meaning of the title, as exemplified by Yeager, who was not considered for the astronaut program because he was lacking a college education. Yeager, looking for all the world like a cowboy hero on horseback as he first encounters the X-15, then breaking the sound barrier in the midst of a press suppression, and at last, in the film's climax, flying straight up into space, as if to duplicate the astronauts' achievements with a plane . . . all of this, and much, much more, shows us in subtle – and sometimes not-so-subtle – images, the thrill and hypnotic power of air flight.

Meanwhile back at the launching pad, the first journeys into "The New Frontier" are chronicled, with fascinating special effects surrounding the space capsules as they leave the Earth far behind.

The film's concentration is more down-to-earth, probing the lives of Yeager and the seven men who made the Mercury Project.

The actors are uniformly superb, and like the current "The Big Chill," this is an ensemble film that has no stars – or rather, it has stars in every role.

Sam Shepard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who has appeared in "Frances," "Resurrection," "Days of Heaven" and "Raggedy Man," plays Yeager. He has the perfect blend of subtlety and dignity, and is fascinating in what is really the film's key role. Barbara Hershey is his wife, "Glamorous Glennis," a spirited, independent woman who loves Yeager's daring as much as the man himself.

The lead astronaut roles are embodied by Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, familiar as the coach in "Personal Best" and the guy who takes Debra Winger away from John Travolta in "Urban Cowboy"; Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper, the "hot-dog" pilot who becomes a "hot-dog" astronaut; Fred Ward as Gus Grissom, a gritty guy who is misunderstood, and whose treatment after his flight is less than he expected; and, of course, Ed Harris as John Glenn, portrayed here as self-righteous and indignant to his fellow astronauts, yet loving and patient with his handicapped wife (she has a terrible stutter), and eventually mutually gaining from and obtaining respect for the rest of "The Seven."

As the wives who are forced to watch their husband's dangerous quests on television – as the world watches them – Kathy Baker, Veronica Cartwright, Mary Jo Deschanel and Pamela Reed are knockouts, showing us much more than the images that adorned Life Magazine during the early ‘60s.

"The Right Stuff" is a powerful film, highly entertaining, often very funny and many times extremely thrilling. The recreation of the time, the use of newsreel footage (sometimes a la "Zelig"), the sets, costumes and outdoor locations are all right on. The gorgeous photography of Caleb Deschanel is stunning (he also photographed "The Black Stallion"), and the Bill Conti score is excellent.

There are a few moments in the film that don't accomplish as much as Kaufman would like. Some of his symbolism is rather heavy-handed and the climactic juxtaposition of Yeager's heavenward flight and Sally Rand's dance in the Houston Astrodome doesn't really work very well. The film also takes a sharp turn into slapstick comedy when you least expect it, and that may bother some members of the audience.

On the whole, however, such criticisms are really just carping. "The Right Stuff," rated PG for profanity and sex talk, along with a nude scene (the Sally Rand dance) and a sperm-count sequence, is a very well-constructed, utterly involving three hours at the movies. And look for this one to lead all the others when Oscar time comes around next year.