Converting Tom Wolfe’s classic book The Right Stuff was undoubtedly a difficult task. The original 7 Mercury astronauts were epic figures in American history. Perhaps the last of Earth’s true explorers, astronauts are the stuff that every kid’s fantasies are made of. It seems nearly impossible to capture such incredible bravery and charisma in the scope of even a 3 hour movie. Philip Kaufman somehow achieved the impossible. It starts with one of the most dynamic casts since The Godfather. Names like Jeff Goldblume, Dennis Quaid and Ed Harris were all relative unknowns at the time. Kaufman also paid great attention to detail. The crafts and locations brought the audience directly in contact with a world long gone from reality. Chuck Yeager’s technical input provided a solid foundation to the spectacular set designers and location scouts. Many members of this cast have since gone on to become acclaimed actors, a true testament to the casting job done on this film. You simply cannot be an American and not see this film at least once. It should be required viewing in every junior high school in America.
When the Soviet Union launches the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, into orbit, panic spreads across the free world. The Cold War reaches its height. America assembles from among the greatest test pilots ever known 7 pioneers. Manned space flight is born.John Glenn(Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Alan Shepard (Scot Glenn), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), and Wally Shira (Lance Henriksen) and test pilot extraordinaire Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) are portrayed in this historical epic.
This re-release has a strong Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. While not tremendously aggressive, it does the job. Highs are quite clear and distinctive, while lows sometimes fail to produce the anticipated power, particularly during launch sequences. Dialogue is most often well-centered and quite easy to hear. Bill Conti’s heroic score is often dynamic and care was obviously made to integrate it effectively into the mix.
There are small snippets of audio commentary by a large number of cast and crew spread throughout the film. They are scene specific and only appear in about a half hour total of the running time. You can get pretty much the same stuff separately on disc 2.
The Right Stuff is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. While the box describes this as a newly remastered print, it does not appear to be any great improvement over the earlier release. There are countless examples of film specks. The picture is at times quite grainy, and examples of digital artifact are unfortunately common enough to mar this release. I understand that it is hard to jam a 3 hour + film on one disc, but I would much rather have had this film spread over 2 discs. Yes, it’s a pain to change discs, but for a superior picture I haven’t heard anyone complain about changing discs on Lord of the Rings. This film deserves a fine digital transfer.
The second disc contains a pretty nice collection of extras. The most extensive extra has to be the PBS special on John Glenn. This piece actually spends most of the time talking about his historic return to space via shuttle. It was apparently made at that time. It’s a nice feature and has a healthy run time.
There are 3 short features that could well have run together (an option you are provided). “Realizing The Right Stuff” is a 20 minute look at converting the popular book into a film. “T-20 Years and Counting” is a look back by some of the cast and crew. “The Real Men with the Right Stuff” finishes this trilogy with a nice visit with Yeager and all of the living members of the Mercury 7 except John Glenn.
There are a bit over 10 minutes of deleted scenes. This footage has obviously not been preserved and is in pretty sad shape. There’s really nothing here that would have complemented the actual film. Sometimes these deleted scenes remind us why good editors get the money they do.
There are some standard cast bio and production notes and the original trailer.
Finally, I was a little disappointed in the “Time-Line to Space” feature. The idea is quite a sound one. You step through some important milestones in the history of manned space flight as well as a preview of some projects still on the NASA drawing board. A few have short NASA footage attached, but I was hoping for some clips of actual launches and mission footage. Instead a narrator with an almost comical Texas drawl gives us a brief summary and the footage is short shots with no really exciting additions.
It had been some years since I’ve seen this film. I found the 3 hour running time just flies by even after multiple viewings and 20 years. With the recent loss of the shuttle Columbia we are reminded just how dangerous this job still is. After almost a half a decade of space travel, we have suffered only three deadly events and have still not lost a soul in space itself. Considering the experimental nature of the tasks, this film exposes these brave explorers for what they really are: heroes. To all of our astronauts past, present, and future I say: “God Speed”.