The Right Stuff
For a while I was wondering if I was destined to never see this film. I went to a theater in Eugene, Oregon, on opening day, and settled down with my popcorn and prepared to be stunned. And we got to Chuck Yeager riding his horse past the X-1 sitting out on the desert, testing the engines. (Never happened. Like much in this film, the scene was meant to be symbolic of many things.) And the screen went white. After a few minutes the manager came in and said we could all go home. He was refunding our money. In this theater it was possible to see into the projection room at the back, and as we filed out I looked in there. The projectionist was standing there in a sea of celluloid up to his knees, looking baffled. Somehow his machine had literally shredded the first ten minutes of the movie.
I came back the next day after calling the theater to be sure they had a new print. This time we got about to the point where the Glamorous Glennis broke the sound barrier when the picture stopped and the emergency lights came on. After ten minutes or so the manger came in again. There was a power failure in the neighborhood. He asked us to stay, but after another ten minutes most of us decided to get another refund.
I’m happy to say that no meteorite hit us during my third attempt to see this movie, nor did a plague of locusts invade the theater. There was no flood or earthquake, and World War III did not start.
It was worth the wait. I was entranced from beginning to end. And even the special effects have not dated. It still feels like you’re flying along with Yeager. Now, I loved the book, and if you’ve read it, it should be fairly obvious that Tom Wolfe made up a lot of these terms he used, that test pilots didn’t really talk much about maintaining an even strain, hanging one’s hide out over the edge of the envelope, didn’t really use terms like pudknocker, rat shack, beer call, car crazies, and so forth. Most of all they never spoke of having the right stuff. That was a term Wolfe made up. But Phil Kaufman, the writer and director, squeezed in as much of that as he could, to preserve the flavor and spirit of the book.
He also twisted the time lines of some events, and radically re-emphasized others. Such as, a sixty-something Sally Rand really did (bizarrely) dance at the big astronaut shindig at the Astrodome, but Yeager didn’t ride that souped-up F-104 to the edge of space at the same time. Nor did he do it without permission. And although it’s a great scene and I wouldn’t change it, LBJ didn’t throw a hissy fit when John Glenn backed up Annie’s wish not to chat with him on television. Annie Glenn had a crippling stutter, and never talked at photo ops. I’m happy to report that she largely mastered the stutter later in life, and worked with many speech-impairment organizations. She and John are still alive, at 96 and 95. He is the last survivor of the original Se7en.
If I have a bone to pick with the book and movie, it is in the depiction of Gus and Betty Grissom. As you may recall, Grissom’s capsule sank after the explosive bolts in the hatch blew. He almost drowned. Investigations at the time cleared him of wrong-doing, and subsequent analysis makes it even more sure that he didn’t blow the hatch. But the book and movie sure make it look like he did, and that everyone in NASA thought he did. Which is simply untrue. The movie also shows Betty bemoaning the fact that she and Gus were not getting the hero treatment that Alan Shepard did before him, and John Glenn did afterwards. I’m sure she was disappointed that she didn’t get to shmooze with Jackie, but the scene was really unfair.
Poor Gus was the hard luck astronaut. The man couldn’t catch a break. He did fly in space in Project Gemini, but then he burned alive, along with Ed White and Roger Chaffee, in the pure oxygen atmosphere of Apollo 1.
BTW, Walter Cronkite hated the book and movie. I can understand that, he had bought into the idea of these men as chaste, courageous, wonderful American boys, and didn’t like to see their flaws exposed. Myself, I’m as big a booster of the space program as he was, but I welcomed the realistic portraits. When you think about it, why would we expect men like test pilots to be teetotaling altar boys? You have to be more than a little crazy to be a test pilot. It is probably the most dangerous job in the world. I loved these guys in the movie, and I loved the movie itself.