“There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.”
‘The Right Stuff’, directed by Philip Kaufman in 1983, is an American historical drama telling the story of the first US astronauts. The film opens with the breaking of the sound barrier by Chuck Yeager in 1947 and then follows the selection, training and missions of seven men chose to be the test pilots of the first manned rocket launches into space. The film captures the tension and drama of the test flights, but such is the running time there is also space to explore the personalities of the astronauts and their relationships at home and with each other. There is a surprising amount of comedy throughout the film. On the surface, ‘The Right Stuff’ is similar to hyper-patriotic films like ‘Top Gun’, presenting the test pilots as gritty and implacable heroes, but the film constantly undercuts this by exposing the human flaws in the characters, from one pilot’s sudden claustrophobia on landing to another’s womanising. There is also broad comedy and the occasional surreal cutting, for example when one astronaut is caught short when the flight is delayed and the director cuts to all the other characters pouring or sipping water. There is also a curious, almost spiritual moment when John Glenn is orbiting the Earth as his heat shield is disintegrating. This moment is cut with his colleagues monitoring him in Australia and an Aboriginal Man performing a fire ceremony. ‘The Right Stuff’ is a rich, epic film that perfectly conveys the bravery and madness of the time whilst emphasising how little NASA were prepared for the space race.
Would I recommend it? It’s long, but doesn’t feel it. The length means you are completely absorbed by the story of the astronauts and their missions. Watch in a double bill with the emptier and more gung-ho ‘Top Gun’ for contrast.