Masculinely romantic, The Right Stuff holds up the men who pioneered the United States space program as ultimate American archetypes. Portrayed as cowboys from the past who led the country into the future, one of them is literally depicted on horseback and the others are often shot in silhouette. Then there is the iconic image of the Mercury Seven astronauts in uniform, walking in unison down NASA’s halls. Surely there’s a cologne out there named after this movie.
That’s not to say that writer-director Philip Kaufman, adapting Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book, doesn’t occasionally puncture such mythologizing. Much attention is paid to the way the government’s publicity campaign surrounding the program both exploited the men and unfairly inflated their reputations. And, as we see in the sequence detailing Gus Grissom’s troubled landing, the astronauts themselves are far from perfect. The Right Stuff also makes some room for the women in their lives, perhaps most cleverly during an elaborate press conference. As a tracking shot moves along the faces of the men being introduced, a mirroring shot does the same with their wives, who are lined up in the audience.
Still, this is a man’s world—and a very specific type of man at that. (The politicians, scientists, and engineers we see are routinely portrayed as clowns.) A real man, The Right Stuff suggests, looks and acts like Sam Shepard (as Chuck Yeager), Scott Glenn (as Alan Shepard), Ed Harris (as John Glenn), and Fred Ward (as Grissom). Perhaps it’s no coincidence that some of these historical figures and actors share the same last names. If Kaufman mostly paints their portraits in broad strokes, they’re also occasionally beautiful ones. John Glenn’s orbit has a particular majesty, as Glenn’s awestruck face and the glowing Earth are captured in the same frame. In moments like that, The Right Stuff makes you genuinely proud to be an American, perhaps even a manly one.