JT Film Review

112 – The Right Stuff (1983)

The Right Stuff REVIEW

4.5/5 stars

Director – Phillip Kaufman

Cast – Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Scott Glen, Sam Shepard, Barbara Hershey, Lance Henrikson, Veronica Cartwright, Jane Dornacker


There are subtle films, and then there are crowd-pleasing bombastic films. Subtlety is generally prefered, with critics usually “docking  points” for the more in-your-face movies. However The Right Stuff is one of those rare movies that wears its colours on its sleeve proudly and for all to see, and yet gets away with it. I have never felt so good about a movie that is so “pro-American” (whatever that means any more), so in-your-face, and even so corny (in places).

The Right Stuff follows both Chuck Yeager and a group of young pilots who are chosen to be the first American astronauts. After a rigorous test screening (and amidst heavy rivalry between the Air Force and Navy pilots), seven pilots are chosen for the Mercury program. Among them are cocky Cooper (Dennis Quaid), uneasy Grissom (Fred Ward), “do-gooder” Glenn (Ed Harris), and tough Shepard (Scott Glen). Others are Carpenter, Schirra, and Slayton, but we really pay any attention to them. The film focuses heavily on their general cocky attitudes, their fervent self-belief, and their optimistic nature, all-in-all, the titular “Right Stuff”.

This movie idolizes its main characters, and the characterization is neither very deep or very distinct. This is perhaps a good thing however, as we are shown them as the embodiment of every young boys fantasy of pilots or astronauts. These are the men we should all strive to be, the movie seems to tell us. Frankly we don’t disagree, as most of us have always wanted to be these guys.

And while it is true that the men are cocky, it is because they need to be. The cocky attitude is in someway a cover, as is subtly revealed in the final scenes of the film. As one character puts it when it is mentioned that monkeys were the prefered cargo for the original flights, ” Monkeys? You think a monkey knows he’s sittin’ on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see. Well, I’ll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that’s on TV.” That quote puts the film in nutshell.

A note on the music. It was composed with  inspiration by The Planets Suite by Gustav Holst. This is all fine and dandy, and the music itself is quite good, but in places it copies The Planets to a note, but then abandons it after a few seconds. I personally found this very distracting, as I constantly expected the music to go somewhere but it instead veered off course. The real Planets Suite would have worked well, I wonder why they didn’t just use that…


The Right Stuff is a movie that certainly wears its heart on its sleeve, but it has more than enough humour, guts, and yes, heart, to pull it through. The actors do wonders with the minimal characterization they are given. Watch out for a young Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum as two naive and in-over-their-heads bureaucrats. The special effects are astounding, especially for their time. The movie is an unabashed heart-warmer. I find that I tend to see these movies as frivolous, as below the meaning of true art. That is dangerously close to pretension, and with that in mind I find myself fully recommending this film.



“The Right Stuff” on other websites:

IMDB —– Rotten Tomatoes —– Wikipedia



November 2, 2010 - Posted by | 4.5 Stars, Film Review, Genre - Drama, Year - 1980-1989 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I really liked this film, and while I’m glad you gave it 4.5, which I think it deserves, I don’t think you’ve emphasized the films many other strong points enough, or at all:

    1 – the cinematography is a cut above. The scenes of the Russian Star Base with the Leaders face superimposed above the rocket launch, the sparks from the Aboriginals fire turning into celestial lights, the way the dancer was lighted at the celebration, the scene transposition shots, all noteworthy.

    2 – you didn’t mention the roles of the astronaut’s wives: John Glenn’s wife and her speech impediment, Grissom’s wife and her despair at not getting what she wanted, even Yeager’s wife, for being pretty modern and independent for a woman of her times. And how the possibilty their husbands could die anytime played on them all. This all fleshed the movie out and made it more than a piece of jingoism.

    3 – the class conflict and biases; Yeager couldn’t be an astronaut because he never went to college, even though he was the best pilot.

    4 – how the media could be manipulated by the astronauts to ensure they replaced the monkeys.

    5 – simply the scope of the movie as it moved from the immediate aftermath of WW2 into the heart of the Cold War. A bit of a history lesson on celluloid.

    I read the book, and this is one of the rare cases where the movie probably outdid the book. Maybe that says more about Tom Wolfe’s writing and politics?

    Comment by brent mosher | November 5, 2010 | Reply

    • All those points are definitely more than valid. Once I learn to take notes while I’m watching the movie I will cover all the bases. Oh well, one day…
      The comment, as always, is greatly appreciated.

      Comment by jamesturpin | November 5, 2010 | Reply

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