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The Right Stuff

   

In Philip Kaufman's 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, an embellished journalistic portrait of the NASA space program from the late '50s to the early '70s, Air Force pilot Chuck Yeager (a stoic Sam Shepard) is "the fastest man alive"—the first to reach Mach 1 velocity and break the sound barrier. He's a rugged Marlboro man who, whenever he's not breaking records or drinking himself blotto, rides past plaintive cacti at sunset and chases his "uncatchable" wife on horseback. The symbolic parallel between romantic love and superhuman glory is almost as heavyhandedly painted as that between the open prairie and the unconquered skies, but then The Right Stuff  rarely goes in for subtlety.

For example, what could be more hamfisted than having every American rocket launch take place in bright daylight and every Russian launch happen at night? Our space program is a collective task that the whole nation is invited to participate in, while the Russkies are up to something sinister, something best done under wraps in a clandestine Siberian locale. (Every time the Russians make an advance, we see a young, spindly, Kafka-lookalike Jeff Goldblum sprinting into a Washington D.C. conference room to deliver the bad news.)

The wives are given some screentime to collectively wring their hands, but their shared anxiety is portrayed with nowhere near the same intensity as in the book. Partly that's because we don't really know what's at stake: the worst that happens to any of the pilots is Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) panicking in the pod, Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) pissing himself, and John Glenn (Ed Harris) getting singed reentering the atmosphere. Gone are the book's gruesome scenes of bodies burned beyond human resemblance, with fried gluteal fat and pulped brains spattered all over a crash site.

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