A few years later, in 1953, Edwards is both a very different place and just the same. Lured by the chance to be the fastest man alive, fly-boys such as Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) form a constant stream of new blood into the still dusty, ramshackle bar that the pilots call home. Yeager is still the top-dog, supported by his wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey) and always ready to push the envelope a little further. Nowadays the press are a familiar part of the background, recognised as the key to ensuring that essential funding never dries up. The corps fawn over the pilots and their planes, a happy club where the boys get to play with expensive toys. An unrecognised parallel is provided by the wives though, forced to wait impotently day after day while their husbands run the 1 in 4 risk of their profession. Trudy Cooper (Pamela Reed) sure doesn't like it but what else is there to do?
All of this striving for speed is but a precursor though, foreplay to the Russian coup which is Sputnik. Suddenly the rules of the game have changed and America has no choice but to follow (at least, that's how the paranoid politicians see it). In a tumbling, haphazard rush, NASA is formed to put something (anything!) into space and grab the prize of the first spaceman. The search is on for men who can take the rigours of space and still function at their best, a path which leads inevitably towards pilots (after the President rejects both chimps and circus performers as the first Americans in space). Yeager isn't interested in being spam-in-a-can whereas Gordy is, with other entries to the Mercury 7 program being people like John Glenn (Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward). While it's never in doubt that they're up to task, the big problem is that the rockets keep blowing up. An inauspicious start to make when the Russians are so far ahead!
The Right Stuff is an epic in the very best way, a tale of dreams and disaster played out on the World's stage. In concert with this giant scope, the film manages to place a human face on the space program, shrinking the immense rockets to a personal level and portraying the quiet heroism of the pioneers. Structurally the storyline is episodic, divided into three distinct eras with technology the thread that links them together. Starting from a specific birth-place (Kitty Hawk would have been another), the tone is immediately set by drawing out the exhilarating, electrifying feeling of flying at speed. It's all too easy to identify with the obsession that drives men to risk all for a stab at glory, yet The Right Stuff doesn't shy away from describing the emotional carnage that can result. This is where the movie really scores, weaving subplots through the main narrative to draw the attention away and reflect tellingly on the central themes.
At the character level, The Right Stuff features both acute performances (partly a result of superb casting) and broadly-sketched buffoons. The pilots, astronauts and their wives are given room to distinguish themselves (though perhaps not as much as you might expect in a film of this length) and show how they are basically decent people beset by a whirlwind of adulation and frustration. Inevitably some roles hog the show, with Shepard excellent as the talented loner Yeager and Harris charming as the popular Glenn. The others are also fine with Quaid, Glenn and Ward particularly convincing (it's interesting to note those astronauts whose names have faded from history). On the wife's side, Hershey is rather fine while Veronica Cartwright (Betty Grissom) and Mary Jo Deschanel (Annie Glenn) really project the incredible strain of being powerless. Unfortunately just about everyone else has no depth and finds themselves playing for laughs.
For a movie which depends upon high-technology, The Right Stuff doesn't overplay its hand by getting bogged down in technicalities. Instead the machines are seen purely as tools, which exactly reflects their position in the space program (unless you're an engineer). Good examples of this humanistic approach pop up all of the time in the harsh, degrading and thorough testing designed to select those with the appropriate qualities (not that anyone actually knew what these were). The prospective astronauts undergo humiliating medical procedures, get bounced and spun around wildly and are forced to concentrate while getting all twisted out of shape. It doesn't matter exactly what the tests were measuring, merely that they were performed in the first place and look horrible enough to put off all but the most determined.
While The Right Stuff, based on Thomas Wolfe's book, demystifies the whole space program, a definite agenda has been imposed. It's almost as if Philip Kaufman wanted to recreate history as he'd like it to be told rather than as it really was (while sticking reasonable closely to the facts). This skewing can be filtered out by the discerning viewer but it's a shame that it was included at all. Despite this, The Right Stuff is an incredible experience which belies its running time, packed with realistic shots, great editing (playing scenes off one another to heighten the effect) and a healthy dose of humour. With a score which captures the feel of the moment, the deep throb of jet engines, this is a movie which injects emotions very directly into the audience. Sure it's flawed but who cares?