Based on Tom Wolfe’s award-winning non-fiction book, writer-director Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff is a marvelous look at the men who served the United States, and all of mankind, by risking their lives to make the impossible possible.
Black and white archival footage (1.33:1), with new material blended in, helps set the stage that the story we are about to see is based on true events. A narrator (Levon Helm) warns of what’s beyond the known as legend tells of a demon that will kill all comers who challenge it. A fiery crash explodes the image, which is now in color, to the limits of the screen (1.85:1). An official has the unfortunate duty to inform a woman her martial status has changed to “widow.” The cost of progress is high, particularly for those families who gave the most.
It’s 1947, and the Air Force believes the sound barrier can be broken, although the destroyed aircraft and lost lives indicate otherwise. Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager (Sam Sheppard) understood, like those who invest in Wall Street should, that past performance was not indicative of future results and is more than willing to tackle the challenge, leading to him becoming the first man to break the speed of sound.
As Yeager and other pilots continue to test the limits of airspeed travel over the California desert, a new barrier comes into focus when the Russians launch the Sputnik satellite in 1957. The story expands to encompass the Space Race as the United States begins a rigorous search to find men to send into orbit. The standards are so high that they exclude Yeager because he doesn’t have a college degree. However, he doesn’t appear interested anyway since it doesn’t sound like any flying is going to be done.
The tests lead to the men who would become the Mercury Seven astronauts. They are Scott Carpenter USN (Charles Frank), Gordon Cooper USAF (Dennis Quaid), John Glenn USMC (Ed Harris), Gus Grissom USAF (Fred Ward), Wally Schirra USN (Lance Henriksen), Alan Shepard USN (Scott Glenn), and Deke Slayton USAF (Scott Paulin). They become national celebrities just by being named, a bit of propaganda to help unite the country behind them and continue the funding for the missions. This is in stark contrast to Yeager and his peers whose accomplishments took a while to become known by the public.
The film highlights the missions of Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, and Cooper, each unique in their own way as are the men, yet all seven formed a band of brothers united against all. Their wives have their own ordeals, dealing with the stress of never knowing if their husbands would return safely to them. They anxiously watched on television as the nation did, while members of the press descended upon their homes like locust.
The Right Stuff won Academy Awards for Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Sound, and was nominated for four others including Best Picture. The entire film is a very impressive endeavor. The flight sequences, both in the air and in space, do a awesome job of placing the viewer in the moment thanks to the cinematography of Caleb Deschanel and visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez, and each one comes across as a unique experience.
The viewer cares about the characters and the story because the very talented cast brought the screenplay to life. I have two minor quibbles with the script. Even though many may have thought Grissom was responsible for what happened on his mission at the time, the film doesn’t allow for much doubt, which turns out to be wrong. The German scientists should have been treated better since they were instrumental in creating the vehicles. Rather than heroes, they come off as a bit out of touch and buffoonish.
The Blu-ray has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer, mostly presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Grain is slight but apparent. The image is clean unless intended to appear like the worn archival material and showcases great depth. Colors appear in strong hues and blacks are strong. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround offers an immersive experience. Jets can be heard flying front to back during funeral flyover, and other objects move through channels as well. The track has a wide dynamic range from the low flutter of water being blown in a tube during the lung-capacity test to the loud roar of jet and rockets engines, which are loud but never distort in the subwoofer. Dialogue is clear, the score is enveloping, and the track is free from sounds of age or defect.
The extras come on a DVD and are the same from the 2003 release. “The Journey and the Mission: Audio Commentary with Selected Scenes” (24 min) finds the cast and filmmakers speaking individually on separate tracks. Each one exudes a deep fondness for the film, and Dennis Quaid makes sure it’s known he won the lung-capacity test. Under “Documentaries,” which can be watched all together, are three behind-the-scenes featurettes with cast and crew: “Realizing the Right Stuff” (21 min); “T-20 Years and Counting” (11 min), which emphasizes the effects and music, and “The Real Men with the Right Stuff” (15 min) featuring Yeager, Cooper, Carpenter, and Schirra. It’s nice that the latter two got to speak since their characters don’t get a lot of screen time. There are “Additional Scenes” (11 min), which don’t offer much more; an “Interactive Timelime to Space” offers information from the Freedom 7 lifting off in 1961 to the Orbital Space Plane in 2012. The PBS documentary John Glenn: American Hero (86 min) was created during his return to space in 1998. There’s also a trailer (4 min).
The Right Stuff Blu-ray is housed within a 40-page, full-color digibook and is accompanied by a letter from Kaufman. The film is outstanding and the high-def upgrade is very satisfying. It’s hard to believe so many Star Wars fanatics have misplaced their devotion to another film released the same year that deals with space and heroes when The Right Stuff is a better film about space and real heroes.