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THE RIGHT STUFF
Two Disc Special Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Charles Frank, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Lance Henriksen, Scott Paulin, Dennis Quaid, Sam Shepard, Fred Ward, Kim Stanley, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed
Director:  Philip Kaufman
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  193 Minutes
Release Date:  June 10, 2003

“Oh, Lord…what a heavenly light!!”

Film ***

Many were called, but few were chosen.  Only seven, in fact.  Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, and Deke Slayton…they were different personalities from different backgrounds, but together, they had The Right Stuff.

Based on the best selling novel by Tom Wolfe, this film chronicles America's entry into the space race by telling the story of the seven Mercury Astronauts…but smartly enough, it actually begins a little earlier than that, suggesting convincingly that the era of space exploration actually began with a very fast plane and the man brave enough to fly it.

That man was venerable test pilot Chuck Yeager (Shepard), who in 1947, did the unthinkable when he piloted an experimental jet through the sound barrier.  That first sonic boom was a shot heard round the world, and not since the Wright Brothers took off from Kitty Hawk had there been such a bold new age of aviation ushered in with a single flight.

Yeager gets his props in this film, and I'm grateful, because despite being one of America's most elite pilots, he never got a chance to make it into space because the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration decided they wanted men with college degrees to lead America into the race for space against her old nemesis Russia.  And once Russia had successfully launched Sputnik and Americans could even see it with their naked eyes soaring overhead at night, a race was exactly what it became.

The film takes us through a lot of history, but despite its 3 plus hour running time, it really never gets boring.  It spends more time showing us what it was like to become and then be a pioneering astronaut than it does actually getting us close to the men themselves. 

Most of them come across as one dimensional caricatures, from the all-shucks Clean Marine demeanor of John Glenn (Harris) to the grinning, boastful hot-dogging of Gordon Cooper (Quaid).  Only Yeager comes across as well rounded.  Some of the astronauts don't come across at all, leaving you reaching for your history books to learn what they even did!  (I can still clearly remember the Mad magazine satire of this movie, where Wally Schirra mutters, “If I had known they were going to make a movie about the Mercury Astronauts, I'd have said a helluva lot more than I did during the program…”)

But from the flight of the first American in space Alan Shepard (Glenn) to Gordon Cooper's historic flight, going faster and farther than anyone had traveled up to that time and being the last American astronaut to fly solo, The Right Stuff plays out not with poetry, but with earnest nostalgia.  Nothing is romanticized, not even the danger, but we do feel like we enjoyed an up close look at a few pivotal moments in history, and remember the courage and valor of every man and woman who risked, and sometimes gave, everything they had for the pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of mankind.

It is to those noble souls I offer a heartfelt thank-you, and humbly dedicate this review.

Video **

This is one of Warner's more disappointing entries.  193 minutes in length coupled with plenty of fast moving sequences might have been asking too much of a single disc, even double-layered.  Compression abounds.  Every single colored background looks hazy and shimmering, and considering how many sky shots there are, it becomes distracting.  Images are generally clear but soft, with mediocre to poor definition, as some colors just look flat and shapeless.  Nothing is so bad that you'd have to avoid the disc if you're a fan of the movie, but this one won't live in the annals of digital transfers.

Audio ***1/2

The audio is a different story…the remixed 5.1 sound is dynamic, forceful and engaging.  You'll feel the power of those supersonic jets and rockets when your sofa vibrates beneath you!  Plenty of .1 action keeps the sound rumbling along, and both front and rear stages work well together for an enveloping effect.  Occasionally, a dialogue-only sequence will sound a bit thin but still perfectly distinguishable, but that's a minor complaint.  Even Bill Conti's Oscar-winning score sounds better than ever.  High marks.

Features ****

This double disc set doesn't include a full length commentary track, but what it offers instead is almost as good…disc two edits specific scenes together, and you get to view them with punctual commentary by either the cast or crew.  And the cast commentary is quite rich…it features Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright and Fred Ward…hope I didn't miss anybody.  It even starts with a few words from the man himself, Mr. Chuck Yeager.  The other commentary features writer/director Philip Kaufman, his DP and others.

Also on the second disc are three new terrific documentaries:  one on the making of the film with plenty of new cast and crew interviews, one looking at 20 years of The Right Stuff and counting, and for history buffs, one featuring some of the actual Mercury Astronauts, including Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra, plus Chuck Yeager.

There is a wonderful PBS biography special on John Glenn featuring Mr. Glenn himself, plus a trailer, 13 additional scenes, and an interactive NASA timeline…a great package!

Summary:

The Right Stuff isn't a perfect film, but it's certainly an entertaining one that has been enthralling audiences for twenty years now.  It's enough to always remind us that no matter how far out into the cosmos we reach or what we come back with or what mankind benefits from it all, that it all began for American with seven brave men and one bold vision.