The Right Stuff (1983)

Dir. Philip Kaufman. Starring Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn

The Right Stuff, when it’s functioning at its highest levels, is a story about the death of the Western, and no one could have been better equipped to play the leading role than Sam Shepard. History will remember Shepard the playwright, but to me he will always primarily be the guy in the bomber jacket, drawling and slurring his words, the man in a movie full of people who profess to be hot pilots who gets to really showcase his stick-and-rudder work. Chuck Yeager could never have been as tall or lean or angular as Shepard, though that doesn’t matter much. Yeager (and John Glenn and Alan Shepard and Gordo Cooper and so on) is involved in his own genre of performance art, and is so much better at it than everyone else involved in the same genre that he makes it look natural. Shepard’s performance depicts a man who, in comparison with the rock stars at Mercury, is profoundly uncomplicated: varnished, maybe, but not polished or gussied up. The hair is usually just right, but the teeth never are; the eyes rest in satisfied slits at Pancho’s or open wide during a particularly engrossing test flight at will. Like any good cowboy, he has a woman behind him. His wife, Glennis (Barbara Hershey), is mostly noiseless but a better rider on horse in the twilit scrub. Where most pilot wives in the movie either chatter endlessly (Betty Grissom) or stay silent because there’s not much good in talking (Trudy Cooper), Glennis is practically Roman in her silent forbearance. Yeager is the perfect test pilot, and Glennis the perfect test pilot wife. Shepard and Hershey, both handsomer than anyone else in the film, belong in a daguerrotype above someone’s mantel to complete the archetype.

All of this would be moot if we didn’t think Yeager was a good pilot, but scenario and Shepard play off our concerns. Yeager can’t go up in a plane without starting off behind. When he takes up the mission to break the sound barrier, it’s with a cracked rib from the bad fall he took off a horse the night before. Ridley (Levon Helm, who was in his forties, looked like he was in his fifties, and playing a man in his early thirties) has to scrounge up part of a broom for Yeager to use as leverage to close the hatch on the plane. He breaks Scott Crossfield’s recently set record, passing Mach 2, but blacks out and only narrowly manages to save the plane and himself. And at the end of the film, riding for glory one last time, he is forced to eject from the F-104 he’s absconded from the base. We get a sense of his ability to push a plane to its outer limits, which is usually followed by Yeager pushing himself to his own outer limits; it doesn’t always end well. Shepard, under a helmet and under a breathing mask, seems almost alien. It’s his eyes that are alive, and his reactions to the blackness of space widen them enormously. The iridescent blackness in front of him is a symbol with a less abstracted meaning than, say, the Black Monolith, but it’s no less effective. It’s the so-called “outside of the envelope,” the desire to go higher, further, faster and tinged with the dark risk that comes with doing so. The larger it gets on Yeager’s 12, the less likely it is that he’ll come back to tell about it.

At the beginning of the film, it seems like we might watch Yeager spar with Crossfield for the title of “Fastest Man Alive” for a couple hours, and that wouldn’t be so bad. Yeager is John Wayne in this scenario, the fellow who might get beat every now and then but sure as heck doesn’t stay that way, and who feels no need to boast or lord it over his competitor. It turns out that Yeager’s ineffable cool, though, is on its way out. When Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum (who are so funny in this movie it hurts) come out to Edwards to recruit potential astronauts, Yeager candidly laughs them off. Anyone in those capsules will be “Spam in a can.” And while most of the guys in the bar laugh with him (after having shared his opinion, orthodox among real-life test pilots in the ’50s, on the space program), Shearer is unconcerned. Yeager would never have been an astronaut anyway. David Clennon (who plays another liaison-to-space type as Caltech professor Lee Silver in From the Earth to the Moon) is amazed: they don’t want the best pilot at the best test flight base in America? Shearer shrugs; Yeager hasn’t got a college education. Crossfield’s out too, because he’s a civilian. In the moment, the joke is on Shearer, who wants “the best pilots that we think we can get,” but in the long term Yeager’s time in the limelight was over as soon as Lyndon Johnson began talking about “the high ground of space.” Doubtless the first cowboy who saw an automobile must have thought that was a pretty needless item, especially when one has a good horse.

As the Mercury program proceeds, Yeager and the other guys at Edwards follow it with interest. They chuckle together as Ham the chimp gets sent into space to run the same kind of mission that Shepard (Glenn – this is the most confusing casting in the world), Glenn (Harris), or any of the other Mercury astronauts will run. But as it becomes clear that the funding that once might have gone to Edwards now will feed NASA (“No buck – no Buck Rogers”), and as Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club goes up in flames, taking the pictures of the similarly torched ex-pilots with it, Yeager becomes more philosophical. They’re still Spam in a can – piloting on a Mercury mission is a sign that something has gone terribly wrong – but it still takes guts, or something like it. Only “a special kind of man” could volunteer for a mission where he does in a giant fireball on national television. The cowboy now understands the value of an automobile even if he still prefers the horse; he also recognizes that his children and children’s children aren’t likely to choose his mode of transportation. There’s a mirror of that respect not long after, at a great big Texas barbecue in Houston, new home of NASA. Gordo has been accosted by reporters. “Who is the best pilot you ever saw?” one asks, presumably having been given a list of Cooper’s catchphrases to rattle off. The stock answer Gordo has – for it’s a question with one correct answer – is “You’re looking at him.” But for some reason he doesn’t go to it. He finds himself reaching back in his memory, murmuring about a place no one goes to and a place which, in fact, has burned to the ground. The reporters grow restless. There was one man, Gordo murmurs. And surely he must be thinking of Yeager, who even now is still at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of California. But the words don’t come. The reporters are really pushing now. “Who’s the greatest pilot I ever saw?” Cooper asks again. He has his answer, and he seems to realize that somehow it would be like killing a mockingbird to tell them about a man who is a legend among a small group and utterly unknown to the wider population. He comes up with his answer for the reporters. “Well, uh, you’re looking at him,” Cooper says a little bashfully, and the reporters laugh deferentially.

In the Western, some grand gesture is required of an aging hero, some great exploit which will either give him leave to ride into the sunset or hasten his departure. Yeager sees his in the F-104, which looks like what a jet fighter would be if you gave the contract to the Bauhaus. It’s a plane which even in the public record is known first for being massively unsafe even for an interceptor, and second for being a lovely specimen of aircraft. Yeager, despite not having clearance to go out in the plane, takes it out for a spin anyway. As he flies higher and further and faster, he finds himself touching what the astronauts have already reached: it’s the edges of space, and the Black Iridescence grows wider and larger. It’s beautiful and a little hypnotic, and Yeager has much the same reaction that the astronauts in the film have. Glenn gushes his way through his flight, and while we only get Cooper’s liftoff, even he has to exclaim that it is a “heavenly sight.” By the old rules, Yeager might have stayed at the top of the ladder indefinitely; in the Space Age, the ladder extends much higher and the process for ascending it far stranger. But after a fashion, surrounded increasingly by the blackness of near-space atmosphere, Yeager has won his Pyrrhic victory, emphasized by the fireball of the F-104 as it explodes on contact with the ground. Ridley and an ambulance see Yeager walking away from the wreckage in his shining flight suit, hauling his neon parachute behind him, his face blackened but smirking a little bit. The astronauts land in the ocean and are hauled out by a helicopter; the cowboy at least gets to walk away from the wreckage on his feet.

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