(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: The Right Stuff
Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max
The Pitch: A chronicling of the early days of the United States space program, the film tracks the journey of test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) as he breaks the sound barrier for the first time. But the bulk of the movie is devoted to following the “Mercury Seven,” a collection of cocky fly-boys who become the first Americans to reach space.
Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: The Right Stuff was a box office bomb upon its release in 1983 and, despite being nominated for eight Academy Awards, doesn’t seem to have left much of a cultural footprint. But with a forthcoming television adaptation landing soon, it seems like now is as good a time as any for the story to sneak back into the zeitgeist. If you’ve seen and enjoyed movies like Apollo 13 or First Man, you should definitely put this on you list.
Aside from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most “ahead of its time” movies in history, The Right Stuff could very well be the most influential movie ever made about astronauts. It established the modern template for practically every respectable history-based astronaut movie that has come out since, and even some fictional space-themed movies have put their own spin on some of the shots writer/director Philip Kaufman and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel created here. Yeah, I’m looking at you, slow-motion shot of the squad from Armageddon.
The film is over three hours long (which may have been why it had a hard time finding an audience in ’83), but it’s so compelling from top to bottom that it feels as if it could have used an extra hour to further explore the trials and tribulations of these hotshot pilots and NASA’s evolution during the Space Race. It also pays significant attention to the astronauts’ wives as well, allowing us to watch this narrative about Great Men partially through the eyes of the people who had to stay home and wait to see if today would be the day their partners never returned.
The thing I liked most about the movie, though, was how dangerous it made high-speed flight and space travel feel. The film does a great job of depicting the rattling, whirling, burning insanity of being locked in a metal death trap, as well as the dedication and bravery it takes to willingly enter that environment. Sure, there was tons of pride and ego at work, but in addition to carving out their names in the history books, it also genuinely seemed like these men were partially doing this out of a sense of duty. While I acknowledge that it’s problematic to romanticize that period of history (it was not ideal for lots of Americans, to put it lightly), the movie nonetheless does a great job of immersing you in a time when it felt like everyone was on the same page about accomplishing the same goal – a feeling that seems almost impossible to recapture in the hyper-splintered political environment of today.
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