Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s engrossing book, it’s still hard to believe that The Right Stuff wasn’t one of the biggest hits of 1983. One explanation might have been that former astronaut and veteran Ohio Senator John Glenn was gearing up for a run at the White House the next year, and many moviegoers saw the film as little more than propaganda to help him in that cause. All of that aside, The Right Stuff is a mesmerizing tale about the birth of the U.S. space program.
The film begins in 1947 at Muroc Army Air Field (later known as Edwards Air Force Base) in California, with test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) breaking the sound barrier. A real man’s man, Yeager is monosyllabic and fearless, walking away from an obliterated aircraft and remarking, “I think my head broke the canopy.” Though he is likely one of the best pilots in the world, Yeager isn’t a clean-cut college graduate; when NASA selects the Mercury Seven—America’s first astronauts—Yeager is left behind.
Seven clean-cut pilots—John Glenn (Ed Harris), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Walter Schirra (Lance Henriksen), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward), and Donald K. “Deke” Slayton (Scott Paulin)—were chosen and presented to the country as heroes. Although several unmanned rockets explode during launch, the resolve to get a man into space remains undeterred, even as the Soviets seemed to be beating them at every turn.
In 1961, America took a big step forward when Alan Shepard became the first man in space. America was on its way to leading the space race. At the same time, Chuck Yeager continued his daring exploits as a test pilot, proving each time that he, was America’s best pilot, even if the country didn’t know it. Using Yeager’s story as a framing device was a smart decision by director Philip Kaufman. Yeager represents the desire to push the limits no matter the cost, to go where no one has gone before. There is a powerful sequence near the end of the film where Yeager takes an NF-104 to the extreme altitude of 108,000 feet and gets a glimpse of space before he exhausts the plane causing it to plummet back to the desert. Once again, he walks away unscathed, exhilarated by the experience.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel provides some truly riveting images and the special effects look realistic but never over the top. There’s very little noticeable blue screen use. Instead, models, unforgettable aerial camerawork, and unique light and chemical work make for an exhilarating story. The Right Stuff does a phenomenal job of capturing a specific time and place in American history.
While it doesn’t appear a new restoration has been done, Warmer’s 1.78:1 aspect ratio, 1080p transfer is quite solid, remaining true to the original theatrical presentation. The film starts of looking a bit soft, with blacks looking a tad crushed. Quite a bit of archival footage is used is used in the beginning, making judging a lot of the image negligible. As the film moves along, detail and contrast improve greatly, and color becomes noticeably more vibrant. While this isn’t a reference quality transfer, it’s certainly the best The Right Stuff has ever been presented on home video.
The 5.1 Dolby True HD soundtrack doesn’t offer the sonic emphasis fans might have hoped for. There are some minor separations in the rear speakers, but the depth isn’t particularly impressive. It should be noted that Bill Conti’s memorable score sounds loud and full, while dialogue is clear throughout.
English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, German SDH, and Italian SDH subtitles are available.
The included extras are housed on a separate DVD, and have previously appeared on Warner’s Special Edition DVD. The Blu-ray and DVD are housed in a 40 page book filled with photographs and information about the film. There is also a letter from director Philip Kaufman:
- The Journey and the Mission Audio Commentary with Selected Scenes by the Cast (24:30) General Chuck Yeager (who has a lot of praise for the rest of the cast), Dennis Quaid (who talks at length about working with Fred Ward and the rest of the cast), Barbara Hershey (who says a few words about actual test-pilot wives), Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer (who laugh about their Mutt & Jeff act), Fred Ward (who values Dennis’ “playful quality”), Ed Harris (who provides some background on the astronaut’s medical tests, , and John Glenn’s trip into orbit), David Clennon (who talks about the actors that played the media group), Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, and Donald Moffat. All cast members were recorded separately.
- The Journey and the Mission Audio Commentary with Selected Scenes by the Filmmakers (24:30) Over the same scenes, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, co-producer Robert Chartoff, composer Bill Conti, director Philip Kaufman, visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez, and co-producer Irwin Winkler offer their thoughts. A decidedly dry affair.
- Realizing the Right Stuff (21:06) Quaid, Harris, Ward, Reed, Cartwright, Goldblum, Shearer, Moffat, Hershey, and Clennon, as well as key behind-the-scenes personalities Chartoff, Winkler, Kaufman, novelist Tom Wolfe, Deschanel, and Yeager are interviewed. While the actors discuss how they portrayed their characters, the filmmakers focus on the production, and the process of turning the book into a film.
- T-20 Years and Counting (11:29) A look at the film’s special effects. We also get a look at the score, and the film’s gala premiere in Washington DC.
- The Real Men with the Right Stuff (15:31) A brief but informative look at the actual men who were part of America’s original space program.
- Additional Scenes (10:55) While interesting, these edited together deleted scenes wouldn’t have added anything to the film.
- Interactive Timeline to Space: Click through this chart featuring photos and videos about significant moments in space exploration.
- John Glenn: American Hero (126:36) A 1998 PBS documentary on astronaut/Senator John Glenn, featuring assorted archival footage.
- Theatrical Trailer (3:33)