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"Oh Lord, what a heavenly light!",
This review is from: The Right Stuff (Special Edition) [DVD]  (DVD)
"There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, 750 miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the Sound Barrier.
"Then they built a small plane, the X-1, to try and break the Sound Barrier, and men came to the high desert of California to ride it. They were called test pilots, and no-one knew their names."
With its communal desert funerals and men riding out of the night to exchange their horses for jets, The Right Stuff's extraordinary opening places it firmly as a mythic modern western. With the West conquered and the demon in the air tamed, the new frontier is Space and the new pioneers America's first astronauts, the 'Magnificent' Mercury Seven.
Picked as much for their looks as their abilities - Chuck Yeager, the legendary test pilot who broke the Sound Barrier, was rejected for the programme because he didn't go to college while John Glenn was chosen because he was good on a game show - the film strips away the NASA-LIFE magazine marketing image of all-American boy-next-door heroes for one of flawed human beings overcoming the everyday to achieve extraordinary things. Real heroes rather than manufactured ones.
Yet if those around them are clowns - the neurotic double-act of recruiters Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, Donald Moffat's Lyndon B. Johnson throwing a paddy in his car, the ex-Nazi rocket scientists singing old battle songs on lift-off - the astronauts are heroic but convincingly human figures. Surprisingly, the film also finds a lot of time for their wives, whose growing dependence on each other mirrors their husbands' camaraderie. Both male and female ensembles are excellent, but special mention must be made of Fred Ward as the ill-starred Gus Grissom and Ed Harris' upright, difficult to like Glenn.
This basis in recognisable reality adds immensely to the film's impact, although one of Kaufman's most successful notions is also his most daringly stylised: making Death a flesh-and-blood character in the film, personified by Royal Dano's black-clad minister who silently strides up to test pilot's doors to break the bad news to their widows. Even when the space program begins he can be found in the crowd, a constant spectre reminding the audience of the enormity of the odds against the first astronauts. Despite the cynicism the film has for authority - "Our German scientists are better than their German scientists" - it never forgets there's something real at stake.
More than anything else, it is full of honest wonder, where the truly special effects are the emotional ones, the film at times genuinely moving. Glenn's orbit of the Earth to the accompaniment of Henry Mancini's score from Kaufman's earlier The White Dawn is one of the screen's most magical moments, and the film's final line of dialogue carries real weight coming from the film's most flippant character. Nor does Kaufman forget the men who were left behind because they didn't fit the profile, Sam Shepherd's Yeager finally getting to touch the very heavens in the film's climax, the demon finally tamed and replaced with a heavenly light as the end of the great heroic era of solo test pilots - and the Mercury Seven were just that - comes to an end.
With much humour and some striking, unforgettable images - Royal Dano's Angel of Death glimpsed as another test pilot sets off, the sparks from an Aborigine fire seeming to summon up fireflies in space, the suited astronauts striding towards the camera in a shot that's been imitated a thousand times since, Yeager emerging from the desert haze after a plane crash - The Right Stuff is one of the great films of the eighties, and just gets better every time you see it.
Part of the last major batch of epics aimed at a primarily adult audience - Reds, Ragtime, The Bounty among them - and boasting a then-massive $27m budget, this was the last big roll of the dice for the Ladd Company, which had been started with high hopes but had been badly hit by the failure of films like Blade Runner (their only significant hit was the first Police Academy). The film's box-office failure would herald the end of the startup, but not before they were reluctantly forced to infamously heavily cut Once Upon a Time in America in the US after disastrous Cannes reviews because of theatres reluctance to book another long film after The Right Stuff.
Perhaps it's that lack of success that meant that the film was only available in a standard `vanilla' edition before this special edition, but the two-disc set makes amends with some good extras. The featurettes on the making of the film could be longer and it's a shame that the audio commentaries are only scene-specific rather than covering the whole film, but there are some interesting deleted scenes that were wisely omitted. The cuts show that Kaufman at one point intended to take the comedy in a more crudely comic mode, with NASA's chief scientist and Lyndon B. Johnson's cackling crosscut with cackling chimps, and even the film's stirring shot of the suited astronauts striding towards the camera undermined by the comic capers of the press corps.
The real Mercury Seven are also acknowledged in the set with archive footage, new interviews and a documentary on John Glenn as well as the theatrical trailer. All in all an impressive two-disc set for a great movie.