The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff (1983)
Warner Home Video
Extras: Commentaries, Documentaries, Additional Scenes, Interactive Timeline, Theatrical Trailer, Cast & Crew List

Based on Tom Wolfe’s best-selling book, 1983’s "The Right Stuff" is a superb film about the early days of the American manned space program. While the epic-length movie manages to capture most of the nuances of the book, it’s the talented cast’s spot-on renditions of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and this at times all-too-human look at the men who became instant celebrities that the really makes the film shine.

In the book, Tom Wolfe examines the men of 1950s and 60s America who truly had the right stuff — military test pilots. These intrepid souls risked their lives on a daily basis testing brand new, bleeding edge aircraft for nothing more than poverty row military pay and the acknowledgement of their peers. If you were one of the select few that’s really all the adulation you ever expected or wanted.

With the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, the American space program took on a sudden sense of urgency and the race began to get the first man into space. While many within the program bluntly stated that no real pilots were needed as the Mercury capsule was a fully automated environment, it was from a pool of all-volunteer test pilots that the first seven astronauts were chosen.

While no one doubted their bravery and dedication, their test pilot brothers chided the original seven for derailing their careers in order to ride atop a rocket like nothing more than glorified lab rats. Real aviators pilot their craft and don’t sit idly by while engineers on the ground determine their fate. The original seven recognized this fact as well and were able to eke out some concessions that allowed them to at least play at being pilots. But still, if one were looking for the plumb aviation jobs of that era, the space program was one of the last places to look.

But imagine the surprise of the astronauts and the other test pilots when the nation seized upon them as some sort of latter day heroes come to life. Adulation, cash, cars, and women were all theirs for the taking and they hadn’t even ridden a single rocket yet.

It’s this sense of disbelief from all involved parties that makes up the core statement of the book. While test pilots such as Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield were setting records and flying rocket planes to the very edge of the atmosphere, it was Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Deke Slayton, and Wally Schirra who were getting all the press and public adoration.

While the movie capably communicates this seismic shift in the test pilot universe by juxtaposing Chuck Yeager’s historic X-1 flights with the relative inaction of the Mercury 7, the casual viewer is probably left wondering what the guy in the weird orange airplane has to do with going into space anyways. So, in a way the film does capture that same public ambivalence toward the real test pilot community although I’m not sure that’s exactly what the filmmakers had in mind.

As the film opens we see news of the historic Soviet space launch and the bureaucratic frenzy it unleashed in the United States. What started out as just one of the possible ways to get into space was transformed overnight into a national priority and the Mercury program was off and running.
Select members of the military test pilot community are put through the rigors of some very off-the-wall physical and psychological testing (far and way the funniest part of the film) before the first seven are presented to an adoring national press.

It’s at this first press conference that the astronauts get an initial idea of just how much their lives are about to change. It is at this conference too that Marine John Glenn (Ed Harris) makes his bid for first among equals status with a speech full of God-fearing, apple-pie-loving platitudes that the media just eats up.

As the other six soon discover, Glenn doesn’t just talk a good game, he also lives it and his puritanical streak starts to rub some of them the wrong way. Most test pilots of that era were from the hard driving, hard drinking school of thought and if they wanted to raise a little hell in their scant few off hours then who was John Glenn to say otherwise?

Things come to a head when Al Shepard (Scott Glenn) is chosen for the inaugural flight over favorite son Glenn. But, in a testament to their professionalism and dedication, the astronauts all pull together to get the job done.
As it turns out, the Soviets once again beat them by launching the first man into orbit in April 1961. But rather than letting this setback derail the program, everyone once again redoubles their efforts in an attempt to catch up and pull ahead in the space race.

Written and directed by Philip Kaufman, "The Right Stuff" was released to a stunning lack of critical acclaim and fairly dismal box office returns. I for one can’t fathom why as the film is that rarest of breeds, an historically accurate movie that somehow manages to be entertaining as well.

Kudos certainly go to the cast who all managed to nail the essence of their characters’ personalities. The fact is, when someone mentions John Glenn to me it’s Ed Harris’s face that comes to mind rather than the real-life gentleman in question.

Warner Brother’s original 1997 DVD release of "The Right Stuff" offered up a decent audio-visual presentation but was hobbled by the lack of bonus features and the fact that the disc was a flipper requiring one to turn it over half-way through the film.

This new special edition release goes a long way toward remedying those two problems but the A/V factor seems to have been left as-is and that has both its good and bad points.

Presented in 1.78:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, this new special edition looks almost identical to the six year old flipper version — claims of all-new digital remastering not withstanding. What that adds up to is a DVD that is certainly watchable but problematic in some areas. Overall the image is a bit grainy, a tad soft, and full of annoying physical blemishes. None of these issues is a deal-breaker or really all that bothersome but when a studio toots its own horn about a brand spanking new reissue then I think we as consumers have a right to expect some degree of improvement.

On the plus side, colors are accurate and stable, black levels are good, and there is only a bit of edge enhancement evident. I realize that cramming this epic film onto a single DVD is a tricky proposition but a little bit of clean-up sure would have gone a long way toward making this new transfer a giant leap over the old one.

Audio comes in an English <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix> as well as a French Dolby Digital 3.0 Surround option. Again, this new release features what to my ears sounds like the identical soundtrack that was on the previous disc. Not that that’s a bad thing as the 5.1 track is very immersive and belies the age of the film.

Bill Conti’s wonderful musical score really gets its due as all speakers kick in to add to the rousing feel of the film. Dialogue and sound effects are also well-balanced and crystal clear. Surrounds are used to great effect meaning that their use is subtle throughout most of the film but when needed they kick in at full force adding an exclamation point to the on-screen action. LFE is also used judiciously and makes the aircraft and rockets come to life without sounding forced or gimmicky.
All in all "The Right Stuff" looks fine and sounds great on DVD but a truly remastered new special edition would have been nice.

Now on to the extras. Disc One features lists of the cast and crew as well as the various awards won by the film. But the bulk of the extras reside on Disc Two.

First up are two abbreviated <$commentary,commentary track>s. Both run for 24 minutes and feature selected scenes from the film for the participants to analyze. The cast commentary features General Chuck Yeager (he has a cameo in the film so I guess he qualifies as a cast member!), Fred Ward, Pamela Reed, Donald Moffat, David Clennon, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer, Veronica Cartwright, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, and Dennis Quaid. What’s odd is that with a mere 24 minutes with which to work, many of the comments are redundant so it’s clear that they were each recorded separately. Still, what they have to say is of interest and the actors are all clearly proud of their work on this film.
The filmmaker commentary features director Philip Kaufman, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, composer Bill Conti, visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez, and producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. This track covers the exact same scenes as the cast version but still manages to add some new and insightful information.
I really enjoyed these abbreviated commentaries and I can’t say that I would have wanted to sit through two complete, three-hour tracks. This was a nice compromise given that the length of the film precluded including full commentaries on Disc One.

Next up are a series of documentary features. First up is "Realizing the Right Stuff." This 21 minute featurette focuses on the making of the film and the difficulty of translating Tom Wolfe’s complicated book into a cinematic masterpiece.

Next is "T-20 Years and Counting," a 12 minute bit that offers further comments on the creation of the film and the thoughts of the major participants all these years later.

"The Real Men with the Right Stuff" is a 16 minute piece featuring interviews with Chuck Yeager and a few of the surviving Mercury 7 astronauts — Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, and Scott Carpenter. John Glenn is the only one absent. This is great stuff and the real-life stories retold here help to flesh out the film a bit and drive home the risk inherent in what these men were trying to accomplish.

Next up is an 11 minute sequence of Additional Scenes which run straight through and are presented in <$PS,full frame> format. None of these short snippets are really all that important but they are certainly worth a look.

The Interactive Timeline to Space runs from the Mercury Program to the Space Shuttle "Columbia" tragedy and beyond into the hypothetical future. A few stops along the timeline feature real video footage of the events in question but most of it is just brief, static text.

Next up is the biggest bonus feature on the disc, a one and a half hour PBS profile entitled "John Glenn: American Hero." As the length implies this is a portrait of the astronaut turned senator. While much of the program focuses on his 1998 space shuttle flight I would have preferred a more in-depth look at his military and earlier astronaut careers.

And rounding out the extras is the film’s original theatrical trailer.

What more is there to say? For an accurate and engaging look at the early days of the American space program "The Right Stuff" still stands as the definitive movie some 20 years later. The previous release was one of my first ever DVD purchases and this new special edition certainly offers some major improvements. Sure the video transfer could have been better but the wealth of quality bonus materials and the move to a single-sided disc for the film make this a no-brainer purchase in my book.