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Film / The Right Stuff

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"Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"

The Right Stuff is a 1983 film adaptation of Tom Wolfe's best-selling book, about the attempt to break the sound barrier and the subsequent Space Race. Directed and written by Philip Kaufman, it received eight Academy Award nominations, winning four.

Briefly considered to be a campaign promo for John Glenn's presidential aspirations in 1984 (though it actually didn't help much), the film provided breakout roles for a number of 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). And while Sam Shepard never worked too hard to advance his acting career, if he can be said to have had a breakout role, it was in this; his performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Among the others in the large ensemble cast are Lance Henriksen, Scott Paulin, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Scott Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, and Harry Shearer.

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 Barnes and Nurse Murch to all of the astronauts' 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.

Another adaptation of the novel, an 8-part miniseries produced by National Geographic, premiered in 2020 on Disney+.

This film provides examples of:

  • The Ace: Pretty much half the cast given what the movie is about, but Chuck Yeager manages to stand out as the "Ace of Aces."
  • Ace Pilot: Figuratively everyone, but literally Chuck Yeager, who had 10 aerial victories in WWII.
  • Anachronism Stew: Although most of the film is good with the history, the first reconnaissance film shown to the White House briefing room after Sputnik suffers a bit from this. It includes footage of a Soyuz rocket, which was first launched four years after the date range of this film. It also mentions the first two cosmonauts, Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov. Russia wouldn't even select their first batch of cosmonauts until 1960, almost a full year after the Mercury Seven were chosen. Another is that Pancho Barnes' Happy Bottom Riding Club burned down in 1953, years before that portrayal in the movie timeline.
  • Arc Words:
    • Gordo's ego about his flying ability led to a frequent line, which was paraphrased as the last line of the film.
      Gordo Cooper: Who's the greatest pilot you ever saw? You're lookin' at him!
    • And Chuck Yeager and Jack Ridley had an Arc Conversation, kind of a de facto pre-flight ritual between them that would play out several times in the film where Yeager would bum a stick of Beeman's chewing gum from Ridley.
      Yeager: Hey, Ridley, you got any Beeman's?
      Ridley: Yeah, I think I got a stick.
      Yeager: Loan me some, will ya? I'll pay you back later.
      Ridley: Fair enough.
  • 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.
    • No test pilot ever historically crashed with the original X-1.
    • The Happy Bottom Riding Club, Pancho Barnes' dude ranch, burned down in 1953. Three years before Gus Grissom and Gordo Cooper arrived at Edwards AFB.
    • Jack Ridley died in a plane crash in Japan in 1957. He would not have been around for later scenes, especially not Yeager's F-104 crash in the penultimate scene.
    • John Glenn is shown serving as CAPCOM at mission control for Mercury-Atlas 9. He was actually aboard the Coastal Sentry Quebec tracking ship off the coast of Japan. Gus Grissom was CAPCOM at launch.
    • Chuck Yeager did not, in fact, casually take an NF-104A for a record-breaking joyride. The crash occured during planned testing sessions. As commandant of ARPS, he was doing a series of preliminary test flights before letting the students have at it. (And also, along the way, set a new altitude record.)
  • 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.
  • Bug Buzz: The sound of locusts is played in the background of scenes that involve the Permanent Press Corps.
  • Cactus Cushion: The night before his sound barrier-breaking flight, Yeager rides a horse smack into a Joshua tree, breaking his ribs in the fall. note 
  • Catchphrase: "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: 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 Seven 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.
  • Combat by Champion: Discussed. The Mercury Seven are essentially America's champions against the Soviets on the battlefield of the Space Race.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Hubert Humphrey insisting The first American in space will NOT be a chimpanzee!
  • Cool Plane: Oodles, including the X-1, the first plane to break the sound barrier.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: During the X-1 flight, Yeager has a line that seems like a throwaway: "Hey, Ridley. Make a little note here, would ya? Elevator effectiveness regained." Nothing else is mentioned about it. However, in earlier Real Life prep flights of the X-1, Yeager had noticed that when approaching Mach 1, the plane's elevator controls would go all wonky. He and Jack Ridley worked for weeks on modifying the plane's elevator system to overcome the issue. Yeager's note that the elevator was working was a signal to Ridley that he was ready to take his shot at pushing past Mach 1.
  • Danger Deadpan: The original. The real Yeager makes a cameo as well (see Real Person Cameo below).
  • Death Notification: The widow of a test pilot cowers in fear from the black-clad priest sent to inform her of her husband's death.
  • 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: Gus!
    Luce: 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.
    Luce: Ivan... ahem... well. Maybe Gus isn't so bad. Might be something there.... All right, all right. You can be Gus.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Gus Grissom, after the sinking of Liberty Bell.
  • 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.
  • Everybody Knew Already: Twice a character runs down the hall to inform the meeting of a Soviet advance. Both times they knew already.
  • Famous for Being First: The first part of the movie deals with the attempts to break the sound barrier, culminating in Chuck Yeager's Mach 1 flight in the Bell X-1. Through the rest of the film, he continues to be held in high regard for being the first to beat the "demon in the air".
  • Fanservice Extra: The climax is intercut with a fan dancer.
  • Failure Montage: A rather spectacular one of rocket after rocket exploding in the run-up to actually launching anything into space.
  • Fauxlosophic Narration: The beginning narration, which poetically describes the sound barrier as a "demon that lives in the air."
  • Fee Fi Faux Pas: Gordo gave a line that led to Pancho laying in on him with the line at There Are Two Kinds of People in the World:
    Gordo Cooper: I bet you're gonna hang our picture on your wall.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Jack Ridley narrates the film.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Anyone familiar with the history of space aviation will know that the Happy Bottom Riding Club will be destroyed, Chuck Yeager will survive his NF-104A, and the Mercury program will end with Cooper's flight into space.
  • Foreshadowing: Cooper sinking the model capsule in his drink foreshadows what happens to Grissom during his rescue.
    • Also for events not included in the movie; Shepard tells his wife "Louise, I'm going to the moon, I swear to God. I'm on my way." He would walk on the moon in 1971 as Commander of Apollo 14.
  • Freudian Trio:
    • The Air Force pilots: Cooper (Id), Grissom (Ego), and Slayton (Superego).
    • The Navy pilots: Glenn (Superego), Shepard (Id), and Schirra (Ego). Carpenter is also a Superego, but it is Glenn and Shepard who clash the most.
  • Friendly Rivalry: Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield. When they're not trying to break each other's records, they're usually drinking together at Pancho's.
  • Friendship Moment: 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?"
  • Genre Savvy: The reporter "knows" that the clean-cut group spokesman Glenn is going to be the first in space. Turns out that he's only half right.
  • Germanic Efficiency: Wernher von Braun insists LBJ Our Germans vill be better than zeir Germans
  • Gosh Dang 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."
  • Herr Doktor: Wernher von Braun.
  • Hero of Another Story: Wally Schirra (played by Lance Henriksen), who helped clear Grissom's name by blowing his capsule's hatch on purpose. note  In the film, he's probably the most forgettable of the seven astronauts, and one of two whose flight isn't even shown (the other being Scott Carpenter).
    • Deke Slayton has more screen time than Schirra as part of a trio with Grissom and Cooper, but his grounding due to heart murmurs, career managing the astronaut office and selecting crews, and eventual flight on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project are not mentioned.
  • Hidden Depths: Gordo Cooper spends the bulk of the film slinging his catchphrase "Who's the best pilot you ever saw? You're looking at him!" When a reporter asks him that very question, however, he actually takes a moment to wax lyrical about his fellow astronauts, those pilots who've lost their lives in aerospace research, and those who continue to push the envelope with minimal fame or recognition, before finally reverting to type.
  • Innocently Insensitive: One of the plot threads is Alan Shepard's use of the José Jimenez accent. While in the waiting room for the first tests, he uses it as a joke, then says hi to a Hispanic orderly (played by real-life NFL player Anthony Muñoz), who tells him off.
    Gonzales: Yeah. "Buenos dias" yourself.
    • Then, later in testing, Shepard and another candidate are both at his mercy in a Potty Emergency, getting literally dragged to an elevator so they can go to a bathroom two floors up.note  In the elevator, Gonzalez takes the time to give Shepard a good correction:
      Gonzales: You know, Mr. Shepard, me and my friends think your José Jimenez impression is A-OK, but what you're doing with it is B-A-D.
      Shepard: Oh, you're right! You're absolutely right!
  • 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.
    • As a form of Interservice Rivalry: the Air Force has pilots, the Navy has aviators. As one of the recruiters was supposedly told, "they're better than pilots".
  • 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.
  • Jumped at the Call: John Glenn is informed that the Soviets have put Gherman Titov into orbit for an entire day.
    Head of Program: The Free World needs a man in orbit, John, or it's all over. So, we're scrapping the Redstone rocket and we're going with the Atlas. You know what that means. We haven't had too much luck with that rocket, John. We're not going to be able to take all the precautions we'd like. It's going to be extremely dangerous...
    Glenn: [cutting him off] We're ready.
    Head of Program: I said it's going to be extremely dangerous.
    Glenn: I SAID WE'RE READY! A hundred percent!
  • Large Ham: Donald Moffat gives what may be the most over-the-top screen portrayal of LBJ. "You know what the Russians want?"
  • 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 sources operating undercover 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. Cooper then starts humming the Air Force anthem. Interservice Rivalry at its finest.
  • 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. And they are rejoicing twice.
  • Mood Whiplash: A montage of NASA rockets exploding ends with a rocket blowing its top off...with an incredibly dissonant cork-popping sound effect.
  • Negated Moment of Awesome: In both real life and discussed in the film, Chuck Yeager was passed over for the space program. Despite being someone who is now considered to be one of the greatest pilots in the history of aviation, NASA was looking for college graduates (specifically, they needed degrees in Engineering or related fields), the reason being that they were expected to (and in fact did) give input during the design phase of the equipment. Grissom was extremely pivotal in the design of the Gemini spacecraft, for example. Yeager never attended college, nor West Point or Annapolis, but instead was an enlisted man recruited as a pilot, and therefore field-commissioned... after being turned down three times by promotion board because of a court-martial on his enlisted record. Could anybody imagine how utterly awesome it would've been had Chuck Yeager become an astronaut?note 
  • 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. Although in Korolev's case, not knowing or revealing his name would've been Truth in Television, since his identity was a state secret until his death, while Von Braun was literally a celebrity in America thanks to Walt Disney.
  • No Name Given: The above-mentioned "Minister"; the "Recruiters" (Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer); "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 is not portrayed in a very flattering light.
  • On Second Thought: "Gus" may not be such a bad name after all, considering the alternative "Ivan".
  • Other Stock Phrases: The book actually popularized the terms "screw the pooch" and "pushing the envelope" in pop culture.
  • Out of the Inferno: Yeager, after crashing the F-104.
    "Is that a man?"
    "Yeah, you 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 a locust/rattlesnake noise whenever reporters appear - this is intentional because the reporters are 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."
    Louise Shepard: Alan must have had four cups of coffee before going to work today.
    • That wasn't even his first, either. Earlier, during the testing montage, he leaves a test with a balloon in his bladder, and needing to urinate. Three problems:
      • If he lets go of a stopper, the balloon deflates, and he unloads his bladder where he stands.
      • The nearest bathroom is two flights up, and the elevator is a good distance walk from the exam room, with the bathroom also a good distance walk from the elevator on its floor.
      • And he has to be taken there by Orderly Gonzales, whom he had offended earlier with his "Jose Jiménez" impersonation as noted higher up.
      • It was actually a barium enema for examining their GI tracts. However, that doesn't make it any less an emergency.
  • 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.
  • The Reveal: The long shot of the astronaut walking out to the first Mercury spacecraft, doesn't show that it's Alan Shepard until he's in the capsule. Of course, this is the Captain Obvious Reveal if you knew that already.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: After sending Gordo Cooper to get a sperm sample, and him making a rather inappropriate joke about assisting him, the nurse looms over him as she sends him off, her face in shadow and Gordo's reflection in her glasses obscuring her eyes.
  • 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 are bits of Artistic License here and there, but that's all.
    • In the scene where the Mercury Seven are first introduced, and they're asked who will be the first of them in space, John Glenn really did raise both his hands. So did Wally Schirra.
    • In addition to the events in MacGyvering and Out of the Inferno, Chuck Yeager also attests to what was depicted for his first Mach 2 flight.
    • Virtually all footage seen during the montage of failed test launches - including the famous "popping cork" - is actual footage of unmanned launches from the Mercury program.
  • Shrouded in Myth: The sound barrier, literally shrouded in clouds, which turns out to be not so big a deal.
  • Sinister Minister: The priest seen in the opening scene reappears again and again. Actually subverted, as he prays for the safety of the aviators and astronauts.
  • Snobs Versus Slobs: The scientists (snobs) and the astronauts (slobs) often have conflicts on each others' interests.
  • Speech-Impeded Love Interest: Annie Glenn, John Glenn's wife, has a really bad stutter which turns out to be central to the plot, mainly through her adamantly refusing to be interviewed by the press due to a fear of public speaking. She very successfully completed therapy for it in 1973.note 
  • 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.
    • When Glenn agreed to make the first US manned orbital flight, he accepted the risk of sitting atop an Atlas rocket. The failure rate of the vehicle at the time was forty percent.
  • 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.
    • Shepard's repeated "I'm OK" during his re-entry.
  • There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: Pancho Barnes' response to Gordo's Fee Fi Faux Pas moment:
    Pancho: I tell you, we got two categories of pilots around here. We got your prime pilots that get all the hot planes, and we got your pud-knockers who dream about getting the hot planes. Now what are you two pud-knockers gonna have?
  • Tickertape Parade: After completing his mission, John Glenn gets one of those in Manhattan.
  • Title Drop:
    • One of the agents mentions the phrase when referring to the test pilot camp in the Californian desert.
      "They got some kind of brotherhood. They think they got the right stuff."
    • Averted at the last second towards the end...
      [Interviewer asks Gordo Cooper, "who's the best pilot you ever saw?"]
      Gordo: There is one pilot who I think truly did have The Right ... [interrupted by a barrage of interview questions]
      • The glance from Gordo's wife, Trudy, belies the irony in this situation. The movie pays little attention to the fact that Trudy was a capable pilot herself, and could have had a more promising career than Gordo had she not been born with the "wrong" set of chromosomes.
  • Training from Hell: Simply applying for the program put the subjects through all kinds of nastiness. Since it was still unclear at the time as to what kinds of stresses astronauts would face on a mission, NASA figured the best option was to stress the applicants in every way they could think of and see who kept coming back for more.
  • True Companions: Just watch the astronauts, and their wives, rally around each other against a NASA administrator and a vice president who's trying to score political points.
  • Vision Quest: The old aborigine has apparently had a few. Gordo rolls with it.
    Aborigine: Who are you?
    Gordon "Gordo" Cooper: Me? I'm an... I'm an astronaut.
    Aborigine: Astronaut?
    Gordo: Yeah.
    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.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After Grissom's flight and the immediate aftermath, whether he was at-fault for the hatch blowing and losing the spacecraft is never addressed. note 
  • Your Little Dismissive Diminutive: Shepard after "wetting his diaper".note 
    Shepard: Alright, I'm cooler than you are. How about you fix your little problems and light this candle!