"Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"
A 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe's best-selling book, about the attempt to break the sound barrier and the subsequent Space Race
. Briefly considered to be a campaign promo for John Glenn's presidential aspirations in 1984, but it actually didn't help much. It received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and one for Phillip Kaufman for Best Director and won four.
This was a breakout role for many now-established actors: Scott Glenn (unless you count Urban Cowboy
), Dennis Quaid (unless you count Breaking Away
), Fred Ward (unless you count Escape from Alcatraz
), and Ed Harris
(unless you count Knightriders
). Additionally, Sam Shepard
has never worked too hard to advance his acting career, but if he can be said to have a breakout role, this is it: he was nominated for an Oscar.
Although the movie is centered around the men and their fast, expensive, and dangerous toys, the women in the movie receive a great deal of character development, from Pancho and Nurse Murch to all of the astronaut's wives.
Interesting trivia: the actor named Glenn played Shepard, and the actor named Shepard played Yeager. Glenn was played by ... the actor named Harris.
Not to be confused with the Anime
online store The Right Stuf
, which has one "F". Or the song by New Kids on the Block
This film provides examples of:
- Artistic License - History: LBJ's quote as the Space Race part began. "The Romans ruled the world because they could build roads" is arguable, leaning towards false. But "the British ruled the world because they had ships" and "we won the war because we had planes" is downright absurd. However, that line was lifted nearly verbatim from LBJ's own words.
- Awesome McCoolname: When Cooper and Grissom are talking about whether they should apply for the space program, Grissom asks what "astronaut" actually means. Cooper tells him it means "star voyager," and they both clearly think that sounds awesome.
- The Bartender: The real-life Pancho Barnes is worth a movie all by herself, and all she got was a made-for-TV piece of junk starring, of all people, Valerie Bertinelli.
- Battleaxe Nurse: Nurse Murch.
- Berserk Button: John Glenn is incredibly mild-mannered . . . unless you pick on his wife.
- Bigger Is Better: the Atlas rocket.
- Bug Buzz: The sound of locusts are played in the background of scenes that involve the Permanent Press Corps.
- California Doubling: averted. Location managers are not likely to find a place more desolate than Edwards AFB.
- The road to Edwards AFB?
- Although the "Australia" in the film looked a lot like some of the more desolate places on the base...
- Catch Phrase: "Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"; "Hey Ridley, got any Beeman's?"; "No bucks, no Buck Rogers"; "Fucking-A Bubba"; "My name Jose Jimenez"; "One hundred percent;" etc.
- Centrifugal Farce: The "Vomit Comet". In a rare example of being used for its intended purpose, the centrifuge appears as part of astronaut training.
- Chekhov's Gun: The conversation the Mercury 7 have with the scientists about having a window, manual controls and explosive bolts. Later on all three become an important part of at least one flight.
- Chiaroscuro: used to good effect in the cabinet room.
- Combat by Champion: Discussed. The Mercury Seven are essentially America's champions against the Soviets on the battlefield of the Space Race.
- Cool Plane: Oodles.
- Danger Deadpan: The original. The real Yeager makes a cameo as well (see Real Person Cameo below).
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Only in this movie could they do this to the dueling tunes of "From the Halls of Montezuma" and "Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder."
- Did I Just Say That Out Loud?: "Dear Lord, please don't let me fuck up."
- Do Not Call Me Paul:
Life Magazine publisher Henry Luce:
Now, I want them all to meet my people who will write their true stories, Naturally these stories will appear in Life magazine under their own bylines: For example, "by Betty Grissom", or "by Virgil I. Grissom", or... Gus Grissom:
What was that? Grissom:
Gus. Nobody calls me by... that other name. Luce:
Gus? An astronaut named "Gus?" What's your middle name? Grissom: Ivan
Ivan... ahem... well. Maybe Gus isn't so bad. Might be something there.... All right, all right. You can be Gus.
- Dude, Where's My Reward?: Betty Grissom. She spends much of the movie dreaming about the big payoff she'll eventually get from the military for all those years of her sacrifices and Gus's heroics. When the grand payoff for Gus's space flight (that almost got him drowned) turns out to be a cheap motel room with some beer in the fridge, she has a conniption.
- Eagleland: Unapologetically.
- Embarrassing Middle Name: Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom. Not only was his first name personally embarrassing, but his middle name would have been a propaganda embarrassment. This IS the Cold War Space Race, after all.
- Everybody Knew Already: Twice a character runs down the hall to inform the meeting of a Soviet advance. Both times they knew already.
- Fauxlosophic Narration: The beginning narration, which poetically describes the sound barrier as a "demon that lives in the air."
- Fee Fi Faux Pas: "I bet you're gonna hang our picture on your wall."
- The Film of the Book
- Fire-Forged Friends: Almost simultaneously, the astronauts when Glenn's mission is threatened, and the wives when Vice-President Johnson wants to interview Annie Glenn.
- Funetik Aksent: "A pot?" "A spaceman?" "A jimp?"
- Goshdang It To Heck: Ed Harris plays this to the hilt as John Glenn. Even when he wants to curse, he can't bring himself to do it.
John Glenn: Let's ffff....
Gus Grissom: Fuckin' A, bubba.
John Glenn: That's right! Exactly!
- The Grim Reaper: Listed in the credits as "Minister."
- Homage Shot
- Improbable Piloting Skills: Averted.
- Insistent Terminology: That... is a spacecraft. We do not refer to it as a "capsule." It's a spacecraft. Similarly, the astronauts are not "occupants" of the spacecraft, but pilots.
- Also, as a form of Interservice Rivalry as listed below: the Air Force has pilots, the Navy has aviators.
- Interservice Rivalry: While scouting for astronaut candidates, the Recruiters mention that Navy Aviators consider themselves better than mere "pilots." Similarly, Cooper, Grissom and Slayton boast that none of the Navy "swabbos" can measure up to their Air Force piloting skills.
- Lethally Expensive: While the two White House staffers are showing the film of the Soviet space program.
White House Staffer #1: This footage was assembled from souces operating under cover at great risk.
White House Staffer #2: Very great.
White House Staffer #1: We're fortunate this material didn't perish... with a couple of men.
- Lie Back and Think of England: When John Glenn has to masturbate for a sperm sample, he hums the Marine Corps Anthem — for, uh — inspiration.
- Lyndon Johnson: Donald Moffat gives what may be the most over-the-top screen portrayal of LBJ. "You know what the Russians want?"
- MacGyvering: The sawed-off broom handle. According to Yeager's autobiography, 100% true.
- Magical Native American: Well, Native Australian. You may well ask what they're doing in the movie.
- Meaningful Funeral: At the beginning, to underscore the dangerous nature of the test pilots' work.
- Missing Man Formation: At the funeral, above.
- Mission Control: Literally.
- NASA: Also literally.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: The head German engineer of NASA and the "Soviet Chief Designer" are meant to be portrayals of Wernher Von Braun and Sergei Korolev respectively.
- No Name Given: The above-mentioned "Minister"; the "Recruiters" (Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, kind of a two-person Crowning Moment of Funny); "Liaison Man" (David Clennon from Thirtysomething); the mysterious Head of the Space Program (and his even more mysterious Soviet counterpartnote ); the "Permanent Press Corps"; etc. etc.
- Old Media Are Evil: The press corps are not portrayed in a very flattering light.
- Other Stock Phrases: The book actually popularized the term "screw the pooch" in pop culture.
- Out of the Inferno: Yeager, after crashing the F-104.
"Is that a man?"
"You're damn right it is..."
- Yeager's face looking like someone had taken a blowtorch to it actually happened in the Real Life event. He spent a long time afterward undergoing burn treatments.
- Paparazzi: You'll notice an insect/rattlesnake noise whenever reporters appear - this is intentional because the reporters acting like this.
- Potty Emergency: "Gordo, I have to urinate."
- Followed by a montage of fire hoses, coffee pouring, water coolers, etc., after which Shepard declares, through painfully clenched teeth, "Request permission to relieve bladder."
- Power Walk: The Trope Codifier.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: A less-than-500-page book turns into a 3+ hour movie, but it's still actually an Adaptation Distillation. Two of the six Mercury flights (Carpenter's and Schirra's) aren't shown at all, and we only see the end of Grissom's and the beginning of Cooper's. There's no mention of what happened with Deke Slayton, despite the fact that he became one of the pivotal figures in space exploration. Plus, the book goes into great detail about the dangers of Navy flight ops, and that only gets 30 seconds in the film. Etc. etc...
- Rated M for Manly: Badass pilots become Badass astronauts. And the ballsiest coolest pilot that couldn't make the space program - Yeager - still shows us how a man walks away from a burning wreck.
- Real Person Cameo: "You fellas want some whiskey?"note
- Red Scare: "Pretty soon they'll be dropping bombs on us like rocks from a highway overpass!"
- Reentry Scare: Justified, in that this actually happened on John Glenn's flight.
- Semper Fi: John Glenn, "Mr. Clean the Marine."
- Shown Their Work: Wolfe was meticulous about getting the details right in his book, so the movie makers had an easy job of it. There's bits of Artistic License here and there, but that's all.
- Shrouded in Myth: The sound barrier, literally shrouded in clouds, which turns out to be not so big a deal.
- Speech Impediment: Annie Glenn's, which turns out to be central to the plot. She very successfully completed therapy for it in 1973.
- Straight Edge: John Glenn.
"Guess they think I'm kind of a gung-ho type. Eddie Attaboy. Harry Hairshirt. What, you agree? You agree? My own wife. Do you think I'm a 'Dudley Do-right'? That's me, I guess. A lonely beacon of restraint."
- Stuff Blowing Up: Towards the middle of the film there's a reel of rockets exploding. Justified as it showed the US hadn't exactly perfected the science of rocketry just yet.
- Survival Mantra: John Glenn is shown humming "Battle Hymn of the Republic" during his (potentially fatal) re-entry, something the real Glenn did not do.
- Also, Shepard's repeated "I'm OK" during his re-entry.
- True Companions: Just watch the astronauts, and their wives, rally around each other against NASA administrator and a vice president who's trying to score political points.
- Vision Quest: The old aborigine has apparently had a few.
Aborigine: Who are you?
Gordon "Gordo" Cooper: Me? I'm an... I'm an astronaut.
Aborigine: Well, what you do here, astronaut?
Gordo: I came up here because a buddy of mine is getting ready to fly overhead, up in outer space. I'll be talking to him on that dish.
Aborigine: Fly over? You blokes do that too?
Gordo: You do that yourself?
Aborigine: Not me, mate. See that old bloke there? He know. He know the moon. He know the star. And he know the Milky Way. He'll give you a hand. He know.
Gordo: We'll sure need all the help we can get.