50 years, 50 films: The Right Stuff (1983)
Our move through the last 50 years hits a classic from a strange time.
There are reasons to feel just a little bit uneasy about Philip Kaufman’s vast treatment of Tom Wolfe’s true-life novel about the early days of the US space programme. This was, after all, an era that was rediscovering the notion of the great American hero. The right-wing narrative argus that, following a decade that brought the last splutterings of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis and various economic collapses, Ronald Reagan set to reinvent the United States as place where John Wayne could hold his head high. More cautious voices now see vast frauds being played out on the American people. Wall Street elevated itself on junk bonds. Iran-Contra spread high-level corruption throughout the planet. None of it now seems real.
In many ways, the Right Stuff serves the right-wing myth making very nicely. After all, Tom Wolfe has never been confused with a liberal. (Well, actually he might have been confused with one in the early days. But he was no such thing.) The early space programme saw the US responding aggressively to the Soviet’s sheer audacity in beating Uncle Sam into the ionosphere. It did so with people who looked more like American heroes than anybody who has ever walked the that country’s expanses. They all had cropped hair. They were all clean cut. They all drove fast and flew much faster. The film’s greatest scene involves one of the great moments of cinematic iconography. The great Chuck Yaeger has gone missing after a test flight. Somebody sees a figure plodding through the desert at some distance. “Is that a man?” he asks. “Yeah, you’re damn right it is,” Levon Helm replies. Fuck yeah!
And yet, like all the great modern westerns, The Right Stuff is an elegiac piece of work. The film is about the end of a particular class of maverick. Chuck is a proper test pilot: he flies dangerous planes at dangerous speed. The coming generation of astronauts may have trained as pilots, but, as they soon realise, they are now being asked to do little more than the chimpanzees who preceded them into space. A later, less slippery film, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, showed that such men still needed bravery, resolve and ingenuity. But they didn’t seem like cowboys in the way that Yaeger did.
At any rate, the picture didn’t really offer any sort of rallying point to the new right. It proved a little too peculiar for the mainstream and failed at the box office (though it won four Oscars). Nothing so fine could remain unloved. The film picked up fans on video and is now a big draw at revival houses. Kaufman had a messy career. His version of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being was too unfocussed to draw acclaim or audiences. Rising Sun was plain bad. The least said about Henry and June the soonest mended. But he has at least one classic to his name (and a great remake in Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
Is that a movie? You’re damn right it is.
For 1983, we also considered L’Argent, The King of Comedy, Videodrome, The Fourth Man and Scarface.