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The Right Stuff (1983)

By Andy Markowitz | Posted

Writer/director Philip Kaufman's sprawling adaptation of Tom Wolfe's book about the birth of the U.S. space program tries to do the impossible--simultaneously celebrating and mocking the notion of a uniquely American brand of grit, guts, and self-sacrifice--and nearly pulls it off. Covering the years from the first supersonic flight in 1947 to the last Mercury mission in 1963, The Right Stuff wavers between America the buffoonish (chiefly represented by a clownishly caricatured Lyndon Johnson) and America the boundless, a land of promise and possibility capable of producing men with the stuff to risk all to go higher, faster, farther. The film never quite transcends its contradictions, but it rushes by with such humor and energy and adventurous spirit that you hardly care, and the huge ensemble cast produces too many great performances to list here. (Although Sam Shepard as ur-test pilot Chuck Yeager, Ed Harris as a stalwart John Glenn, and Pamela Reed as long-suffering astronaut wife Trudy Cooper are worth singling out.) A couple of detours into pointless mysticism aside, Kaufman has an unerring eye for the iconography of the frontier and a sure feel for the mythic blend of bravado, confidence, and cool that literally propelled the nation to new heights. Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of the Cold War space race, this is one exhilarating ride.

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