February will mark the 34th anniversary of the wide release of the last great all-American film: “The Right Stuff.”
Neither a love letter to liberals nor a clarion call to conservatives, neither a critique of President Eisenhower nor a celebration of President Kennedy, the film is all-American because we are all Democrats, we are all Republicans—we are all Americans. For there was a time when this nation answered a challenge not with words, but with deeds. When all it took to summon the moral health and martial vigor of the United States was, in hindsight, a vainglorious attempt by the Soviet Union to conquer the heavens.
By sending the equivalent of a metallic basketball with four antennas, and less wattage than a lightbulb, into space; by launching Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, which orbited Earth for 21 days until it became a fireball on reentry; by doing nothing more than receiving a series of blips and beeps from that 198-pound polished sphere, the Soviets dared a restless giant to make a giant leap for mankind.
“The Right Stuff” honors these events by honoring the men, all of them military test pilots, whose daring enabled them to slip the surly bonds of Earth before they could touch the face of God.
Adapted from the Tom Wolfe book of the same name, “The Right Stuff” is one of the few films that is better than its source material. The film is so good, in fact, that despite Wolfe’s mastery of the form, despite his exuberant prose and his excitement on behalf of these great men—despite the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air —the film is proof through the night that this film is still there; and better than one of the best books about the space race.
The film’s director, Philip Kaufman, gives us seven all-American stars, played by seven movie stars. We know the former by their last names alone: Carpenter, Cooper, Glenn, Grissom, Shepard, Schirra and Slayton. The world remembers them as the Mercury Seven.
There is an eighth in the film who transcends them all: Chuck Yeager.
Played by the late Sam Shepard, Yeager is the star of the film’s prologue and epilogue. He is tall and terse, but not tart—save his response to Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum, the bean and beanstalk duo of NASA recruiters, who deem him ineligible to be an astronaut because he lacks a college degree. Yeager speaks for the test pilots who crowd the bar at the Happy Bottom Riding Club, mocking the Mercury program as nothing more than “Spam in a can.”
Thus begins the earthly battle between the Organization Man and the Last American Man, between bureaucrats with punch cards and a cowboy who punches a hole in the sky, between engineers and an enigma, between the frightful many and the fearsome few. Thus begins a screaming against the sky, of a pilot racing the wind before he reaps the whirlwind, of Yeager making history by breaking the sound barrier; a sonic boom—a sonorous blast—as good as any paragraph of exclamation points.
Shepard is Hollywood’s last all-American in the same way Yeager is the last of the real-life all-Americans. An exclamation point unto himself, though more relaxed than rigid, Shepard is Gary Cooper with a leather jacket—and a broomstick and a stick of Beeman’s.
He emerges from the light, soaring past the forces that would have him smack into that not-so-gentle good night, as he does not bother to trade his style for a uniform. The jacket is his cover, the chewing gum his good luck charm, the mission his sole concern.
He shatters the glass on his console, breaking a flight record while flying with broken ribs. He does so without complaint, in contrast to our modern grievance culture, where every participant gets a prize and every prize is the same for every participant, because we award awards to recipients, whom we refuse to call winners.
Leave it, then, to Shepard to show us what a winner looks like. Leave it to this Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright to maximize a minimum of words from wordsmiths like Kaufman and Wolfe.
Only Shepard, a Texan, could play a native of West Virginia by channeling the spirit of the star of “The Virginian.” Only this quiet man could have so many memorable lines while chasing the wild blue yonder and cheating death.
As for the others, NASA dresses them more like mannequins than men. Clad in space suits that look like quicksilver but weigh three times as much as a bar of silver, the Mercury Seven astronauts walk onto a government-run fashion runway.
When Yeager dons his own flight suit, it looks like a bespoke suit.
In the film’s penultimate scene, Yeager pilots the Lockheed F-104, a supersonic fighter jet faster than a speeding bullet; a silver missile with wings, which climbs to 108,000 feet, 20 miles above Edwards Air Force Base, where an indigo sky fades to black and the weight of gravity passes into weightlessness. Yeager briefly passes out—and almost passes away—before righting himself in a spectacular display of the right stuff.
He ejects from the cockpit, like a spaceman with a red parachute, descending to the surface as his jet smolders in the desert. Then, as two servicemen in an Army Jeep head toward the wreckage, as the driver adjusts his eyes and searches the horizon for signs of life, he sees nothing but dark smoke and dancing flames, as if the wind feeds the fire so the earth may feast on Yeager’s body.
After a moment of silence, the driver asks the passenger, who is his commanding officer, what he sees.
“Sir, over there. Is that a man?”
Cut to a red banner billowing in the distance, until it falls and frays because our hero needs no cape to fly.
Comes the answer: “Yeah, you damn right it is.”
Thus does an all-American man advance toward the screen, with the sun in his face and a glint in his eyes.
Thus did moviegoers leave theaters on a Friday night in February 1984, aware of our victory in a grand battle for space, but unsure if we would soon triumph in that long twilight struggle for hearts and minds around the world.
They went home that night, 110 days before the 40th anniversary of D-Day, 213 days before “Morning in America,” 711 days before mourning in America, 2,092 days before a decisive victory for America, the continent of Europe and the city of Berlin.
Those were days of toil, with plenty of tumult and tears. Those were also days of glory, precisely because our opponents attacked our pride and our enemies assailed our power. Those were the days when extremists claimed the day after tomorrow would be “The Day After” because of a cowboy president, not a cowardly Soviet premier. Those were the days when the naïve doubted our resolve and the noxious denied our right to champion what is right.
Those were the days when we cheered “The Right Stuff.” Those were the days when the all-American went all the way, forging ahead with an independence as incendiary as it was individualistic.
Those were the days when a prayer before liftoff was the best send-off.
Those were the days when Hollywood had the right stuff. Those were the last days of the all-American film.