There's bravery, and then there's Bravery. There are those who face danger and those who embrace danger. There are those willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, and those eager to sacrifice themselves to forge new horizons, propel the human race forward, and raise the standard by which we live. Such men are a rare breed, blessed with intangible qualities the rest of us lack. Ice water courses through their veins and they feed off of adrenaline. Call them courageous, call them committed to a higher purpose, or call them just plain stupid. But by all means, call them heroes.
And that's just what author Tom Wolfe does in his bestselling account of the dogged test pilots who crashed through the sound barrier and dared to conquer the final frontier. What these special men had was something Wolfe calls "the right stuff," a difficult-to-define amalgamation of unique qualities that sets them apart from mere mortals. And in his spectacular book, filled with the energy, drive, and brazen confidence of the men it honors, he celebrates the exhilaration of flight and the spirit that launched us into the stratosphere and pushed man to go faster and farther than he ever dreamed possible.
Today, the term hero is so overused, it's become trivial, but Chuck Yeager and his fly-boy cronies, who ceaselessly sought to confront "the demon" who lived beyond the sonic boom, and their square-jawed, cocksure test pilot colleagues, who became the Mercury astronauts and rocketed into the cosmos, define the ideal. Much like the explorers from centuries ago who discovered our world, these guys were tough and intrepid, taking giant risks without any guarantee of reward or even survival, and yet they continually accepted challenge after challenge, even as they grew ever more ambitious and treacherous.
Adapting 'The Right Stuff' for the screen was no easy task, yet writer-director Philip Kaufman masterfully captures the aviation culture and social timbre of the times, treating his subjects with equal parts respect and irreverence, and ultimately painting a riveting portrait of a bygone age. The movie version of Wolfe's book is just as spirited and epic as its source. Both a compelling piece of popcorn entertainment and thoughtful examination of courage, strength, camaraderie, quiet dignity, and against-all-odds achievement, 'The Right Stuff' takes material better suited to a documentarian and fashions an exciting narrative tale, beginning in 1947 when Yeager (Sam Shepard) exceeds the Mach 1 milestone. The film then chronicles the recruitment, selection, training, and deployment of the famed Mercury Seven, a group of jovial, clean-cut, macho egomaniacs who become the idols of a starry-eyed American public before they ever lift off the ground.
There's Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), the first American launched into space; Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), who followed Shepard and was almost disgraced by a mechanical malfunction; media darling and future U.S. senator John Glenn (Ed Harris), the first American to orbit the Earth; and "Gordo" Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen), and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), all of whom also got their turn to make history and advance America's fledgling space program. Though each man ends up eclipsing the soft-spoken Yeager, the quintessential daredevil who single-handedly paved their way yet never received a fraction of the recognition and acclaim he deserved, he remains the centerpiece of the film, always looming over the action, an unflappable, steadfast soldier who swallows his pride and continues to do his duty without objection or complaint. No doubt about it, he is the personification of the right stuff.
Yet just as the film's men possess courage and conviction, so, too, do the women, all of whom must adopt those qualities and translate them to the domestic environment. Worry, fear, sacrifice, and solitude define their lives, and they must learn to stoically deal with the strain, even with the eyes of the public and press scrutinizing them. Barbara Hershey, Pamela Reed, and Veronica Cartwright all expertly show us different sides of a test pilot's wife, and their intuitive, insightful interpretations both enhance and temper the movie's macho shadings.
As does the humor that pervades the story. These gods among men need to be knocked off their pedestals so we can in some way relate to them, and Kaufman keenly infuses many sequences with very funny bits. Some are real, some are invented, but all spotlight human frailties in one form or another. A fully strapped-in Shepard soberly mutters, "Oh God, please don't let me fuck up" as he sits in his capsule awaiting liftoff, then, after a long delay, sends mission control into a tizzy when he announces he has to urinate. Witnessing the outlandish physical and medical tests the men are forced to undergo, almost all of which are administered by a Nazi-like nurse with a moustache problem, is equally amusing, as are the friendly rivalries that pepper the training process, and NASA's trials and errors as technicians ceaselessly strive to build a successful and dependable rocket.
For a high-tech film produced before the dawn of CGI, 'The Right Stuff' boasts impressive visual effects that make us feel like we're in the cockpit with Yeager, hurtling headlong into oblivion, or orbiting the Earth with Glenn, drinking in the breathtaking view. Yet despite the simplicity, nothing looks fake or cheesy, and our suspension of disbelief is rarely compromised. Because the film focuses so intently on character, the special effects don't define the movie; the performers do, and their top-flight work (the cast is comprised of a veritable who's who of rising young actors) enhances the realism of many scenes.
'The Right Stuff' clocks in at 193 minutes, which is about 30 minutes too long, but Kaufman's film is never dull and justly earned its eight Academy Award nominations, which included nods for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sam Shepard), and Best Cinematography. (The movie won four Oscars - Best Original Score, Best Editing, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing.) Wolfe's book remains a classic, and though the adaptation possesses a different tone and perspective, it's equally successful and stays true to the basic tenets of the right stuff.
With the same brashness that defines the legendary pilots portrayed on screen, 'The Right Stuff' salutes hope, dreams, patriotism, commitment, and fortitude during a time of tremendous optimism and national confidence. Though nostalgic in nature, even today the film instills in us a sense of pride, admiration, and, most importantly, awe - not just for the monumental achievements depicted, but for the not-so-average joes who stepped up to the plate when called upon and became our heroes. That's why 'The Right Stuff' is great stuff...then, now, and forever.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 30th anniversary edition of 'The Right Stuff' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in one of Warner's slick, handsomely designed digibooks. The Blu-ray disc, which houses the main feature, is tucked inside the front cover of the hardback volume, while the standard-def DVD, which contains all the supplements, sits inside the back cover. A free-standing letter from writer-director Philip Kaufman also resides inside the front cover, acting as an introduction to the 40-page, full-color book that's printed on high-quality, glossy paper stock. In addition to analyzing just what is the right stuff and providing some background on the test pilot and Mercury programs, the book includes noteworthy historical dates; brief profiles of the actors and some of the figures they portrayed; a biographical sketch of Kaufman; and blurbs about the aircraft and spacecraft used in the movie, shooting locations, and cooperation of the military during production. The photos and layout are both top-notch, and the packaging as a whole lends a truly special look and feel to this release.
Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
'The Right Stuff' underwent a meticulous restoration before its 2003 DVD release, but this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer raises the bar yet again. The biggest difference lies in the removal of dozens of errant marks that littered the DVD. With such annoyances gone, we're left with a spotless, perfectly balanced image featuring slightly enhanced contrast and clarity. The letters that signify location are markedly sharper than they are on the DVD, and close-ups possess more impact (check out the shot of Cooper reflected in the nurse's eyeglasses), highlighting a host of fine facial details. Faint grain maintains the feel of celluloid and adds a modicum of necessary grit, but there's a lovely silky quality to the picture that heightens the story's epic nature and makes the film a joy to watch.
Though the color palette isn't especially intense, most hues are bold and vibrant, from the orange of Yeager's jet to the yellows and greens that adorn costumes and landscapes. Fleshtones appear natural and remain stable throughout the lengthy running time, while rich black levels add welcome weight to the picture. Shadow delineation is always strong (crush is never an issue), background elements are easily discernible, and archival footage is nicely integrated into the whole.
No banding, mosquito noise, or aliasing afflicts the image, and no digital doctoring, such as edge enhancement or noise reduction, has been applied. Without question, this is the best 'The Right Stuff' has ever looked in the home video realm, and this impeccable transfer, which showcases Caleb Deschanel's Oscar-nominated cinematography to the fullest, injects new vitality into this 30-year-old movie. Fans shouldn't hesitate to upgrade, and if they do, they won't be sorry.
A film that wins Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing demands a strong audio track, and Warner delivers with a highly immersive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix that subtly improves upon its lossy counterpart. Smoother, richer, and more nuanced than the DD 5.1 track that graces the 2003 DVD, the Blu-ray sound makes full use of the surround environment while remaining well modulated. A wide dynamic scale handles all the activity with ease, especially the whistling, whirring, and whizzing of the jet engines and rocket propulsion. (Such messy sounds often break up or fall victim to distortion, but they're rock solid here.) Some mild directionality provides wonderful atmosphere as planes careen through the clouds and soar overhead, and waves of applause wash over us during the press conference scene, while the tick-tock of a metronome cuts across the rear speakers with acute crispness. Accents, such as bubbling water, the clip-clop of horse hooves, and the rapid-fire shutters of camera lenses are all marvelously distinct, and the subwoofer provides vital jolts of thundering bass during explosions and rocket launches.
Amid all the potent ambient action, dialogue occasionally becomes slightly muddled, but for the most part it's properly prioritized and easy to comprehend, and Bill Conti's Oscar-winning music score adds an air of majesty to the proceedings, exhibiting great depth of tone as it sweeps across all five speakers. Best of all, no hiss, pops, or crackles disrupt the audio's purity, making this finely tuned mix one of the best restored 1980s tracks I've heard.
Almost all the extras from the 2003 DVD have been ported over to this release, and it's a substantive, involving collection. The only omissions are a cast and crew listing and awards notes. Some exclusive 30th anniversary material would have certainly sweetened the pot, but unfortunately those holding the purse strings at Warner didn't deem such an expense necessary.
Thirty years after it first rocketed into theaters, 'The Right Stuff' still delivers the goods. Reverent and respectful, yet laced with biting comedy and a whimsy that belies the toughness of the figures it salutes, Philip Kaufman's epic chronicle of trail-blazing test pilots, America's premier astronauts, and the elusive quality that sets them apart from most mortals remains a terrifically entertaining and exciting film. It may not always travel at the speed of sound and runs about a half hour too long, but vivid characterizations by a gallery of fine actors and riveting historical recreations keep 'The Right Stuff' aloft. Warner's handsome digibook presentation honors the film with a striking video transfer that improves upon the previous DVD, top-notch lossless audio that puts us in the thick of the action, and all the extras from the 20th anniversary edition. Even if you're not an aeronautical junkie, you'll love 'The Right Stuff' for its history, humor, and humanity. Highly recommended.