East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Canonball #995: The Right Stuff

Starring Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward
Adapted by Philip Kaufman from the book by Tom Wolfe
Directed by Philip Kaufman

The funniest epic ever, as well as one of the great movies about heroism. In Pauline Kael's famously hedged review, she wrote that "This epic has no coherence, no theme to hold it together, except the tacky idea that Americans can't be true modest heroes anymore--that they're plasticized by the media". In the era of Private Lynch, that idea doesn't seem so tacky, and besides, the movie makes the point that heroism can be much more subtle than the old ideal. Kaufman's trick is to set up the test pilots, explempified by Chuck Yeager (Shepard), as real heroes, then claim that the astronauts are synthetic heroes, then show us that the astronauts are real heroes after all. Yeager is of course an archetype straight out of any old Western, elevated here to superhuman status. Does the movie excoriate the astronauts for not being Yeager? Maybe, but I think Kaufman, if not Wolfe, understands that cursory bravura isn't what the times call for. The pilots and astromauts are heroes for venturing into the unknown, but they're also heroes for sticking up for one another. And their wives are no less heroic: they share the trials and don't even get the exhilaration of the adventure in return.

Kaufman's frequent shifts of tone range from uncomfortable to amazing, with the balance slanting towards the latter. When the time comes for gags, Kaufman somewhat nonchalantly them by one after another. Sometimes it works up to satire of the Cold War mentality ("our Germans are better than their Germans") but it's generally more basic than that. The funniest section is the testing of the potential astronauts, as the pilots are put through a series of bizarre, sometimes irrelevant trial; we see Gordo Cooper's (Quaid) hot-dogging gamesmanship contrast with John Glenn's (Harris) unobtrusive superiority. The jokes also relax the tone, so that DP Caleb Deschanel's easy, elegant in-flight images (aided greatly by sparing use of Jordan Belson's avant effects) are free to lightly elate us.

The performaces are uniformly vibrant down to the tiniest roles, like Anthony Munoz key-blocking on behalf of Hispanic nurses everywhere. Shepard plays Yeager with true grit, instinctive and reckless when riding a horse or in a cockpit, undemonstrative otherwise. Scott Glenn, all rangy sinew as Alan Shepard, is the astronaut closest to the Yeager ideal -- but he's willing to go along with the bluff for fun and profit. Quaid's fine acting is trumped by his smile: it's slyer and more roguish than seems possible. Ward, as Gus Grissom, becomes the dark spirit of the film, bedevilled by asserted cowardice and future tragedy. Harris portrays golden boy John Glenn as magnanimous, but unmistakably ambitious as well. He gets that great, great scene where he tells his wife (Caleb's wife Mary Jo -- they have a couple of daughters you may have heard of) that she doesn't have to let Lyndon Johnson into her house, and then he lashes out as his handlers without using a single obscenity. When he's threatened with losing his place on the next flight, his colleagues immediately close ranks around, refusing to take his place. That, boys and girls, is heroic.


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