Philip Kaufman is a filmmaker whose work (from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Henry and June to Quills) is usually steeped in irony, but that’s nary a trace to be found in The Right Stuff, a straightforward celebration of America’s first astronauts. There’s enough of a paradox, after all, in the notion that these work-hard, play-hard, wisecracking middle-American guys — ordinary Joes – could summon up such extraordinary courage to risk their lives as space pioneers.
That’s what Tom Wolfe, in the book that inspired the movie, called “the right stuff.” But surely, along with bravery and relatability, the right stuff also includes showmanship. Whether it’s Alan Shepard’s (Scott Glenn) patronizing version of Bill Dana’s Jose Jimenez routines, or John Glenn’s (Ed Harris) gee-whiz boy scout demeanor, or Gordo Cooper’s (Dennis Quaid) broad grin, the Mercury astronauts (or at least Kaufman’s versions of them) have what it takes to sell the space program to America and to the rest of the planet.
Like the heroism needed to withstand the rigors of zero-gravity flight in ramshackle spaceships, the ability to sell that heroism with some sizzle is also something you’re either born with or you’re not.
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