Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film The Right Stuff opens with the successful attempt by American pilot Chuck Yeager to break the sound barrier in 1947 and ends with the final flight of the Mercury programme in 1963. Although the story of America’s first astronauts can be seen as a heroic ‘boys-own’ adventure, it is in the contrast between Yeager and the Mercury Seven where the film provokes the deepest responses of not only what it takes to be a hero, but what it takes to be recognised as one.
Kaufman adapted the screenplay from Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book of the same name, and the film is remarkably faithful. After rejecting an initial screenplay by author William Goldman as too patriotic, Kaufman’s own script results in a film that is at once uplifting and inspiring, but at the same time deeply cynical about the nature of fame and celebrity, and our tendency as a society to hero-worship.
Chuck Yeager is presented to us as the living embodiment of ‘The Right Stuff’, that indefinable characteristic that makes a person willing to sit atop 78,000 pounds of thrust and be blasted into orbit. Recognised as a true hero by the flying community, nevertheless Yeager is not chosen to be an astronaut, and is thus relegated to the sidelines. Whilst Yeager’s achievement is denied publicity by the government, the Seven are announced to the world in a press conference laden with religious symbolism.
Whereas the Seven sign hugely lucrative deals with Life magazine, Yeager breaks the sound barrier for nothing more than his officer’s salary and a free steak. Although throughout it is emphasised that the Seven have ‘The Right Stuff’, the film pulls no punches in presenting the Seven as flawed men also, most notably in the presentation of their extra-marital affairs; again, a contrast is drawn here with Yeager who remains faithful to ‘Glamorous’ Glennis, his wife.
The viewer is left to question, therefore, whether having ‘The Right Stuff’ is simply enough in the age of celebrity. The Mercury Seven are undoubtedly heroes, but Kaufman’s cynical appraisal of their appeal suggests that their status owes slightly more to the press than their own abilities. The true heroes remain the men who fly with Yeager, who throw themselves at the stars because it is their day job, and who do so without applause. In the words of the film’s opening monologue: ‘they were called test-pilots - and nobody knew their names.’
Written by Cormac Connelly-Smith
Posted on 09/10/2016
by Amy McLean filed under