The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

Thu January 18, 7:30 PM

Muenzinger Auditorium

Free show

Intro by Erin Espelie, Film Studies

At the beginning of The Right Stuff, a cowboy reins in his horse and regards a strange sight in the middle of the desert: the X-1 rocket plane, built to break the sound barrier. At the end of the film, the seven Mercury astronauts are cheered in the Houston Astrodome at a Texas barbecue thrown by Lyndon B. Johnson. The contrast between those two images, contains the message of The Right Stuff, I think, and the message is that Americans still have the right stuff, but we've changed our idea of what it is.

The cowboy at the beginning is Chuck Yeager, the legendary lone-wolf test pilot who survived the horrifying death rate among early test pilots. The movie begins with that victory, and then moves on another 10 years to when the Eisenhower administration hustled to get back into the space race.

Our astronauts were more than pilots; they were a public-relations image, and the movie shows sincere, smooth-talking John Glenn becoming their unofficial spokesman. The X-1 flew in secrecy, but the Mercury flights were telecast, and we were entering a whole new era, the selling of space.

The Right Stuff is an adventure film, a special effects film, a social commentary and a satire. That the writer-director, Philip Kaufman, is able to get so much into a little more than three hours is impressive. That he also has organized this material into one of the best recent American movies is astonishing.

It joins a short list of recent American movies that might be called experimental epics, along with "The Godfather," "Nashville," "Apocalypse Now" and maybe "Patton" and "Close Encounters." It's a great film. (R. Ebert)

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