1983 / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor

Film #360: The Right Stuff (1983)

Throughout the course of this challenge we’ve seen plenty of epics with recent offerings including David Lean’s final film A Passage to India and the long-winded The Last Emperor. These films tend to look back at a historical event and feature brilliant cinematography, costume design and art direction. Arguably joining their ranks is The Right Stuff, Philip Kauffman’s film about the first American men to go to space.

The Right Stuff differs from a lot of these other films in that it deals with modern history and combines some wonderful art direction with some brilliant use of editing and sound. Like all epics, The Right Stuff is just over three hours long although I felt the opening sequence could’ve been significantly trimmed down. This opening sequence looks at a group of test pilots living in the Californian desert whose life is constantly defined by bettering the speeds set by their rivals. A small bar in the area honours those who have given their lives to aviation by hanging up pictures of the fallen pilots. A number of these test pilots are letter selected by government agents to be some of the first American men up in space. President Kennedy is keen to win the space race and is eager to recruit the first astronauts as soon as possible. However, arguably the best pilot in the area, Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager, isn’t given the opportunity to join his colleagues due to his lack of a college degree. Yeager’s later attempts to become an astronaut are later documented but, due to a lack of preparation, are completely disastrous. Meanwhile the pilots are joined by John Glenn, a man already known to the media due to his numerous appearances on chat shows. The film then follows the men as they are selected for the programme and face numerous problems along the way. I found one of the most interesting aspects of the film was that the plight of the astronauts’ wives was given prominence and their various dilemmas impacted on their husband’s missions. Just as the film took a while to get going, it also took it’s time ending but by that point I had really gotten to know the characters which was a testament to both Kauffman’s direction and his well-written screenplay.

Despite not being a fan of the baggy opening, there’s no denying that the black-and-white home movie sequence more than demonstrated that this film would be visually spectacular. Kaufffman’s use of full-scale models added an authenticity to The Right Stuff and the visual effects employed throughout were truly spectacular. The culmination of all of these effects was the incredibly tense sequence involving Glenn’s ascent into space and the problems he encountered whilst up there. Of all the films I’ve watched so far, The Right Stuff is the first to take me off the Earth’s surface and it was a joy to watch this story of modern technology played out in this way. Unlike many of the epics I’ve watched so far, The Right Stuff was as interested in getting us to sympathise with the pilots as it was with visual splendour. The conflicting moral codes of these men were dealt with in some detail as was their problems dealing with the media. Kauffman also looks at how the camaraderie between the seven developed over time which was particularly evident in the scene where they helped Glenn stick up for his wife when she refused to open the door to Vice President Johnson. The seven actors who portrayed these men were definitely an ensemble group which probably explains why none of them were nominated for acting awards. This is a shame as I felt both Ed Harris, as Glenn, and Fred Ward as the unfortunate Grissom were worthy of nominations. In fact the only nomination the film received in the acting categories was for Sam Shepard’s supporting turn as the unlucky Yeager which is odd seeing as he wasn’t on screen too long. The film did triumph in four categories at the award, winning Oscars for sound, sound editing, editing and Bill Conti’s original score. But I feel that the Caleb Deschanel’s brilliant cinematography was deserving of an Oscar and soon I will reveal why I think The Right Stuff also should’ve won Best Picture that year.


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