01 March 2011

CLIMBING HIGH INTO THE SUN

Robert Hamer's contribution to the Carry On Campaign brought along with it something of a present: a plausible excuse to write about a movie that I will admit to enjoying far beyond any defensible reason. Of course, it's actually a pretty fine piece of cinema, but my affection is mired rather more in space travel fanboyism than cinephilia.

Tom Wolfe's 1979 book The Right Stuff is his masterpiece, a work of literary journalism that madly crams together anecdote upon anecdote, recalling the early history of the Space Age and the race between the United States and the Soviet Union with humor and the brazen prose style that made Wolfe so vibrant and influential and easy to parody. Treating on one of the most heavily-mythologised slices of 20th Century American history in a breezy manner that managed to both knock down the mythology and make the events of that period seem even more impressive and heroic, the book was an easy fit for the Hollywood treatment, and Hollywood indeed wasted no time in making that happen: the film of The Right Stuff was released in the autumn of 1983, a fair turnaround time for something so technically complex.

The translation from film to screen was not, though, an effortless one: Wolfe himself dismissed the finished results (calling it a fine film that had absolutely nothing to do with his book, or trashing it outright as a travesty of history, depending on what source you believe), and the first screenwriter, the legendary William Goldman, had grave misgivings at how much writer-director Philip Kaufman's version of the story bent history to favor certain characters and events. I suppose we can all agree that this manipulation of history is intellectually and ethically dubious, though when the results are so gung-ho and rousing, I'll admit to being enough of an intellectual coward that I'm willing to give it a pass. For The Right Stuff is unquestionably both gung-ho and rousing; it crams a madly indulgent running time (three hours and thirteen minutes!) with so much incident that it barely feels half its length, all in celebration of what the sentimentalist in me wants to call the finest human achievement in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. In the face of that, what's a little bit of historical revisionism between friends? I'm put in mind of a cliché about the perfect being the enemy of the good. Even a better cliché might be: "It's only a movie." The Right Stuff is absolutely a movie: one hell of a movie, one of the scattered handful of truly great American movies in the first half of the 1980s.

Following the book in this respect at least, the film doesn't have "a story" as much at it follows an ultimately bureacratic process: the creation of NASA's Project Mercury in 1959 as the successor to the United States' high altitude aircraft tests, and as a direct response to the increasingly clear dominance of the Soviet space program. Wolf's treatment of the material is driven more by ideas than by actions, and while it is generally chronological, it is also undramatic, in at least the most denotative sense of that word. Kaufman's changes to the material serve largely to give the material a more narrative scope, not so much the story of how a moment in history happened, but how one man who embodied all the bravery and fortitude and things we like in our American males was forced to the sidelines by the creeping march of progress.

That one man was Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California, regarded as the first pilot to break the sound barrier, in 1947, and generally the exemplar of the ineffable quality that divided the great fliers from normal mortals, the unnamed It that only a few men had, the Right Stuff. It was Goldman's chief complaint about Kaufman's film that it privileged Yeager at the expense of denigrating the other men in the film, and that's at least a bit true; at the same time, it's hardly the case that the Mercury astronauts are presented as buffoons and incompetents, and what Kaufman's decision certainly gave to the film was a scope and an arc, a sense of tragedy in which the personal drive of the individual is contrasted against the triumph of a collective, in which no single person, not even the much-ballyhooed astronauts themselves, is primarily responsible for that triumph.

Yeager, then, on the one side; on the other are icons like John Glenn (Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn),* Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid), and so on, all of them presented not as saints (Time's infamous cover question when the movie was released during Glenn's presidential campaign, "Can a Movie Elect a President?" ignores the film's treatment of Glenn as a bit of a fatuous prig), nor as the blind "spam in a can" dismissed by Yeager, but, following the book, as a bunch of military guys out to prove that they're the best pilots in the world, by doing a job they love.

As a character-driven film, then, The Right Stuff lucks out in having a miraculously well-assembled cast: besides the names I've mentioned, Lance Henriksen pokes his head in briefly as Wally Schirra, Veronica Cartwright plays Betty Grissom, Mary Jo Deschanel made her film debut as Annie Glenn, Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer share a few early scenes as the bureaucrats sent to recruit pilots to the Mercury program. But the film mainly rests on four men: Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, Ed Harris, and especially Sam Shepard, noted playwright & deconstructor of American iconography, in what is still perhaps the most prominent of his film performances, and certainly the one that makes the best use of his granite features and his scruffy voice. He embodies the exact breed of rugged, weary American mythological masculinity at the center of Kaufman's concept of the material, looking every bit the Outcast Hero who knows more and can do more than anyone else, but is too certain of his own skills to go looking for validation in the way that the Mercury Seven did - and he does this without ever sacrificing the specificity of who Yeager was as a man. Given the script's refusal to define "the right stuff" - something Wolfe was only able to do in a multi-paragraph passage of beautiful but unstageable prose - it falls to Shepard to exemplify it for the audience.

As for Glenn, Harris, and Ward, by virtue of not being asked to embody an ideal, their work isn't a iconic as Shepard's, but gets to be more personal and individualised. And accordingly, though their characters have the tang of archetype, they're each more human than that: Harris's John Glenn is both sanctimonious and tremendously earnest and noble. Glenn's Alan Shepard is pragmatic and proud. Ward's Gus Grissom is an especially nuanced figure, owing in no small part to some especially dubious choices Kaufman made to trump up apocrypha that makes the astronaut seem like a worse man than was the case, but certainly makes him a more difficult & fascinating dramatic character.

Coming in the thick of Philip Kaufman's greatest period as a filmmaker, The Right Stuff competes only with The Unbearable Lightness of Being as his most altogether successful work as a director. Juggling a good twenty important characters, several years of history, a complex political context that was already largely forgotten a scant two decades after the events depicted, and the technical challenges inherent in filming a story of men hurtling around in space capsules and in jets miles above the earth, Kaufman keeps the movie flowing like a perfectly oiled machine, in which ideas are reduced to their most elegant, or at least simplest cinematic expression. In particular, he uses the hoary old trick of cross-cutting like a surgeon, contrasting Yeager and the Mercury astronauts, and indeed contrasting the individual Mercury astronauts themselves in ways that are here obvious, here coy, here serving to underline the romance of it all and here to ironically point out that these men were just men, after all; I daresay the film is one of the most sharply edited of the 1980s (for such an essential tool of such antiquity, I'm always shocked by the relative scarcity of films that actually use cross-cutting in any remotely effective or clever way).

Besides the large team of Oscar-winning editors, there were a number of other key collaborators: Caleb Deschanel's dusty cinematography largely eschews nostalgia but embraces a different kind of haziness, and brings a tense of texture to the images that reflects, more than any other element of the film, the immediacy of Tom Wolfe's reportage; Bill Conti's score (his best ever, for which he too received an Oscar) ecstatically, and famously, blends Holst's The Planets with the U.S. Air Force theme song and some synthesizer-heavy motifs that serve to give the film an all-important gloss of a certain otherness rather than to date it firmly to the early '80s; that otherness is the last ingredient in a film with a most complex relationship to its audience, wanting to give us a history lesson, to indulge our patriotism - it assumes an American audience to an absolutely shameless degree - to stress the particular singularity of those days and those men who scraped the roof of the world. And there, I think, I shall leave it, for that is the dominant feeling of the movie: amazement that men such as these actually walked the earth and the sky, awe that they've experienced something that will forever remain out of reach to the vast majority of the species. It is a film about grandeur, beyond anything else.

2 comments:

Robert Hamer said...

The film itself has become a bit of a "forgotten classic," hasn't it? A box office bomb, attacked by some as inaccurate, but praised strongly by others (Ebert and Siskel both put it as #1 of 1983), it always seems to be acknowledged as outstanding yet that acknowledgement has never been "canonized." I'm probably not making any sense....

Rebecca said...

I have seen a lot of space movies and documentaries over the years, and a lot of the docs tend to blend together for saying pretty much the same thing. But I believe it was In the Shadow of the Moon that stood out by asking the astronauts what their favorite space movie was. I wish I had it so I could quote it exactly, and I don't even remember who actually said it, but one of them said The Right Stuff - not because it was accurate, which it wasn't, but because it captured the feeling of what that time was like.