Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 26, 2003)
As usual, Oscar got it wrong for 1983 when the Academy chose Terms of Endearment as Best Picture of that year. As all right-thinking Americans know, the actual best movie of the year was The Right Stuff, about as manly a testosterone-fest as you're likely to find. Guess 1983 was a victory for the women, since Endearment pretty much defined the phrase "weepy chick flick."
In the long run, however, I think The Right Stuff has maintained more general appeal than Endearment. I feel the latter has gotten somewhat lost in the continual parade of similar films, whereas few other pictures have spent much time covering the same territory as Stuff, and none have attempted to take on the subject in such an epic style.
Although Stuff clearly has a strong historical base, it makes no attempt to provide documentary-style coverage of its subjects. That's pretty much a given in any films that deal with test pilots and the space program; it's larger than life material and we're used to seeing it treated as such. However, films such as Apollo 13 tried much harder to keep things down to earth, as it were. Stuff paints its subjects with an extremely broad brush as it portrays those events in a near mythical manner.
That's both a positive and a negative. I think the style does befit the material, since the subjects of Stuff all maintain virtually legendary status. In no way does the film ever try to convince us that it's an objective, realistic presentation of these men; it's all guts and glory from start to finish. While I think that this method works well for the most part, there were times when the excesses of the style started to get to me. On occasion, the film started to veer a little too far away from an objective portrayal of reality and began to turn slightly farcical. Overall, however, it's solid historical fiction and it provides strong, consistent entertainment, something fairly rare for a film that's almost three and a quarter hours long. Inevitably, it does drag at times, but not frequently.
That consistently engaging quality of Stuff brings me to another factor that's both a strength and a weakness: the ensemble cast. Don't get me wrong - this is an amazingly solid bunch of actors who all provide fine work, as there's not a dog in the bunch. However, the cast is so large and the film tries to cover so many characters that some of the picture's emotional impact gets lost along the way.
Stuff features no one main character, but five different roles can be considered the male leads: Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), and Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn). Yeager provides the thread that winds the piece together. He may have a bit more screen time than the other four, but it's probably pretty close. As far as those four go, the movie seems to cover them all fairly equally.
Add in the wives of these characters - all of whom play semi-significant roles except Louise Shepherd (Kathy Baker), who largely gets lost in the mix - plus about a trillion other supporting roles and you have one huge cast. This is probably a good thing for such a long movie; the more characters we have, the more likely our attention can be maintained, since we won't get too bored if we don't like a few of them. I simply think the film might have worked a bit better if the focus had been pared down a bit.
However, by necessity that change would have made the film less of an epic, and its grand scope is one of the reasons we maintain interest in it. Also, the aforementioned terrific acting helps. In such a large cast, it's hard to pick any standouts, especially since all of them are so good. If I had to pick the best, I'd go with three: Shepard, Quaid, and Harris. Shepard offers a portrait in simplicity as Yeager, who comes across as smart, strong, virile and sensitive all at once. Quaid's work as Cooper was somewhat cartoony but in a good way; he made his character quite vibrant and alive. Harris does an excellent job of making Glenn a sweet, good-natured guy without making him too much of a sanctimonious goody-goody.
(Interestingly, his work was viewed politically, since Stuff came out right before the start of the 1984 presidential campaign, in which then-Senator Glenn ran for president. Both sides of the fence feared that such high profile exposure could affect the race. Ironically, no one was ever sure of what kind of slant Harris's portrayal would affect; would Glenn comes across as a solid American hero or would he look like a goofball? Harris's acting definitely favored the former, but it seemed to have no effect on the election.)
Overall, The Right Stuff continues to offer quite exciting and vibrant filmmaking. While it may try to be excessively heroic and larger than life, so few films attempt to reach the status of "epic" anymore that it's awfully good to see one that does, and succeeds pretty well. I don't know if Stuff is the best movie about the space program, but it's very high on that list.
Footnote: The Right Stuff must rank as one of the most “F-word” filled “PG”-rated flicks ever. I didn’t keep a formal count, but at least four uses of that word occurred. Since most flicks jump from “PG-13” to “R” when they use that term twice, it’s surprising to hear it so often here. (“PG-13” wasn’t an option in 1983; it didn’t come into existence until the following year.)
The DVD Grades: Picture C- / Audio A- / Bonus D
The Right Stuff appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not a terrible picture, Stuff demonstrated a fair number of problems that made it less than satisfying.
Sharpness usually appeared positive, as only a few small exceptions occurred. Some wider shots came across as slightly soft. However, most of the movie was well defined and distinct. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no problems, but some mild examples of edge enhancement presented concerns occasionally. I also noticed some light compression artifacts throughout the movie. These didn’t appear enormous, but they created moderate distractions at times.
Stuff featured a natural and warm palette that came across well here. The colors always remained tight and accurate. Colored lighting looked solid and failed to suffer from any bleeding or noise. Black levels were deep and dense, while shadows seemed nicely delineated. Low-light shots looked clear and appropriately detailed.
Where Stuff lost most of its points related to source flaws. Throughout the movie, I noticed quite a few examples of specks, spots, grit, marks, scratches, streaks, and vertical lines. Some of the flaws came from stock footage, like the opening shots of Cocoa Beach, but that didn’t explain all – or most – of them. The film didn’t seem horribly full of defects, but they came across as heavier than I expected of a 20-year-old flick, and they forced me to drop my grade to a “C-”.
While the picture of The Right Stuff hasn’t aged terribly well, the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack worked remarkably nicely. I found it tough to believe this track came from a moderately old flick. The soundfield seemed wonderfully broad and vivid. In addition to the expected solid stereo imaging for the score, effects demonstrated great activity and involvement. The front speakers boasted fine breadth and dimensionality. Elements seemed accurately placed and they moved smoothly across the speakers.
The surrounds kicked in with a lot of useful material as well. General ambience worked nicely throughout the movie, and the louder scenes displayed terrific vividness. For example, the flight deck on Glenn’s Navy carrier created a great sense of place, and the jet flights immersed us in the action. Even press conference shots demonstrated a nice feeling of the location. The soundfield really complemented the visuals.
Audio quality also worked very well, especially when I considered the age of the material. Speech lacked any problems like edginess, as the lines consistently sounded natural and distinct. Some of the synthesized parts of the score appeared slightly dull, but most of the music came across as bright and dynamic. The score mostly was clear and crisp. Effects also functioned well. A few jet shots displayed slight distortion, but those examples stayed minor, and the other elements seemed concise and accurate. Bass response was simply terrific, as low-end material sounded deep and firm and also presented a solid bang. Overall, the audio of The Right Stuff functioned extremely well.
In regard to supplements, The Right Stuff includes only a smattering. The vast majority of the information is provided in onscreen text form, and some of it's quite good. We get short cast and crew biographies for actors Charles Frank, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Lance Henriksen, Scott Paulin, Dennis Quaid, Sam Shepard, Fred Ward, Kim Stanley, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, and Pamela Reed plus composer Bill Conti, author Tom Wolfe, and screenwriter/director Philip Kaufman. Biographies for all Seven Mercury Astronauts also appear, as do histories of Pioneers Chuck Yeager and Pancho Barnes.
The Behind the Scenes section gives us some interesting production notes about the making of the film. The “Supplemental Data” part provides a strong Spaceflight Dates and Events timeline, plus a nice glossary of both Pilot Lingo and Space Terms. All of these features are more detailed than I've come to expect from these kinds of supplements, and all are very interesting.
Finally, the DVD includes the theatrical trailer and a little more text that lists the Academy Awards that Stuff won. Though not much appears here, at least the quality of the text seems pretty positive.
A vivid and heroic epic, The Right Stuff tells a dynamic tale with fervor and might. It treats its subject in a gripping and mythological way that makes it a consistent treat to watch. While the DVD presents surprisingly excellent audio, it suffers from relatively weak visuals and a general absence of supplements.
If you’re a penny-pincher, you may want to go with this basic edition of The Right Stuff. However, if you can spare a few extra bucks, you should go with the 2003 two-DVD special edition release. It offers identical audio along with moderately improved visuals and a significantly more substantial set of supplements. It lists for $7 more than this one, but I think it’s clearly the superior package.
To rate this film visit the review of THE RIGHT STUFF: Special Edition