Sunday, January 4, 2009

Scattershot Narrative - The Right Stuff

One of my favorite movies from the early 80's is "The Right Stuff". In some ways it's a bit of a forgotten film. I rarely ever see it on lists of great films from the 80's and yet I still hear the main theme from the film in movie trailers. It's lasting legacy may be a single short scene. For those of you who've never seen the film, it covers the very beginnings of the Mercury Space program as part of the race to get a manned space craft into outer space before the Russians. The movie starts with a sequence of events involving test pilots attempting to break the sound barrier with faster and faster planes. Then it follows a few of those test pilots as they selected to attempt to survive the enormous amounts of tests required to prove that they are capable of being America's first astronauts.

The single shot that most people remember from the film has the camera at the end of a long hallway. Walking toward the camera are the seven Mercury astronauts in full space suits. The main theme swells as they walk toward us, slowly but with determination. These are men who are ready to risk their lives for their country and because they live to tempt fate by riding a rocket into the unknown. I've seen this same shot repeated countless times in other movies. Usually they add some slow motion to make things more drama. In fact the use of slow motion has become necessary for any long shots of a team walking down a hall to triumphant music, that I am always surprised that it doesn't happen in "The Right Stuff".

One of the reasons the film may not be mentioned very often is that its actual narrative is not clearly defined. The first third of the movie deals heavily with test pilots and breaking the sound barrier. The test pilot at the center of this portion is Chuck Yeager. We watch him become the first man to break the sound barrier and then see his reaction as other pilots appear and continue to go faster and faster. The movie switches gears when Gordon Cooper shows up and we follow him and his fellow astronauts for the rest of the film. Often times the movie will return to Yeager watching the astronauts on television or listening to their exploits on the radio.

One of the final sequences takes place at an enormous (and surreal) celebration of the space program moving to Houston. All the Mercury astronauts are there and they seem to know that for the moment the entire world revolves around them. The film jumps between this celebration to Yeager deciding to borrow a test plane to attempt to go higher into the atmosphere than anyone has ever gone before - without a space craft. Yeager's adventure in the jet goes from thrilling to terrifying, and all this is cut into the celebration with its cheerleaders, fan dancer, BBQ and shmoozing. It's a very odd moment, placing these two story-lines with and almost against each other.

The film then ends with Gordon Cooper being launched into space and for that moment "becoming the fastest man alive". The end titles roll. I'm always surprised that the story just seems to end there. It wasn't until recently that I discovered that the unique thing about all these men is that they attempted to journey at the fastest speeds possible and by themselves. After the Mercury program, astronauts never went into space by themselves. This connection makes the film tie together a bit better (and explains why Yeager is in the film).

As the movie stands you end up wanting to see more and actually become annoyed when one story line seems to push the other out of the way. You could have made a great movie about Chuck Yeager and you could have made a great movie about the Mercury astronauts. Instead we get a very good movie about both of them. It's this strange decision to tie the two together that never really works for me. I can see how Yeager's story influences the astronaut’s story. It's clear that these test pilots were the right men for the job, but the ending of the film seems like its trying hard to put Yeager’s connection with the astronauts back in.

So why do I enjoy the movie so much? It's got a great cast: Sam Shepherd, Ed Harris, Scott Glen, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Barbara Hershey and a ton of excellent supporting players. The look of the movie captures all the early NASA footage I've seen as well as the mood of the early 60's and the intensity of the cold war rivalry. Bill Conti's score works pretty well in the film. It has a very early 80's feel to it at times and that can conflict with the 60's look of the film. For the most part, you are pulled into both story lines. The ending is the only thing that feels like a let down. It's sudden and doesn't feel like it wraps up either Yeager's story or the astronauts story.

What do you think of "The Right Stuff"? Have you seen or read an example where two different story-line actually work in a movie? Do you have a movie you enjoy that seems to get missed on "Top" lists?

No comments: