review for The Right Stuff on AllMovie

The Right Stuff (1983)
by Nathan Southern review

As adapted from Tom Wolfe's seminal novel about the early years of the space program, this stunning, soaring epic (magnificent in the purest sense of the word) manages to capture the exact overtones and themes of its source material while evincing extreme faithfulness to the individual experiences of the first astronauts. Director and scriptwriter Philip Kaufman (who inherited and quickly jettisoned an early adaptation by William Goldman) models his story within the framework of the American western, via countless homages to the cinema of John Ford. In fact, (as film critic Danny Peary notes) Kaufman utilizes the basic dramatic structure and premise of Ford's classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); just as, in that picture, John Wayne rubbed out the villain (and thus, helped tame the west) enabling Jimmy Stewart to take credit for the feat, here Kaufman reveals how aviator Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) pioneered the early space program while allowing the media to bestow laurels on the undeserving astronauts. Undeserving, that is, until the men proved themselves once and for all by demonstrating that they had "the right stuff" to qualify as heroes. Throughout, Kaufman interweaves strands of liberal satirical humor, penetrating social commentary and even mysticism (in Australian scenes involving aboriginal rites) within a brilliantly crafted narrative; he also utilizes a healthy amount of footage by the San Francisco-based experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson, who helped create many of the visual effects for outer space. That collaboration paid off: throughout, we are continually dazzled by the showstopping grandeur of extraterrestrial exploration. An epic to end all epics, this picture boasts first rate work by an all-star cast - Shepard, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn, Scott Wilson and Barbara Hershey (to name only a few) deliver some of the finest performances of their careers.