In retrospect, it seems odd that a project like The Right Stuff--screened Monday, September 4 at 7 p.m. at the AMC Glen Lakes by the USA Film Festival--could get made in Hollywood at all.
Sure, the 1983 movie is based on a best seller by New Journalism icon Tom Wolfe, but Wolfe's gleefully schizoid style--alternately elevated and juvenile, sympathetic and smug--is tough to recreate cinematically. Miraculously, however, writer-director Philip Kaufman found a way; he didn't so much adapt Wolfe's book as rethink it, rework it, riff on it, and make it his own. The result was a $35-million historical epic about the rise of modern celebrity in America that boasts enough detail for 10 average movies.
It's a wonderfully contradictory filmic contraption; the only thing holding its assorted pieces together is the director's all-consuming fascination with what the space program meant to America, and his determination not to deliver simple answers to complicated questions. Tom Wolfe's book was at least partly a lament for the passing of so-called "real" heroes, like laconic test pilot Chuck Yeager (played by Sam Shepard like Gary Cooper in a flight suit), and the rise of government-anointed, Madison Avenue-packaged, press-friendly pseudo-celebrities like the seven Mercury astronauts (played by then-obscure actors, including Ed Harris and Dennis Quaid).
But Kaufman gums up Wolfe's relatively simple heroism equation, making it thornier, subtler, deeper. With unexpectedly sympathetic warmth, he shows us how the astronauts grasped what rugged, anonymous, loner hotshots like Yeager never did: that it's possible to enter the public eye in a completely passive role--as "Spam in a can"--and then turn the situation to your advantage.
That The Right Stuff would investigate such complicated issues so intelligently is amazing enough. But the film also happens to be hellaciously entertaining; there isn't a boring moment anywhere in its three hour and 20 minute running time. When Kaufman isn't filling the screen with rushing, roaring, fire-belching planes and rockets, he's tickling you with political satire or bathroom humor, touching you with a tender domestic interlude, or zapping your eye with a gorgeously composed image. It might be the smartest crowd pleaser of the 1980s. The chance to see it again on the big screen is a rare treat. Don't miss it.
--Matt Zoller Seitz (email@example.com)
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