Release Date(s)1983 (November 5, 2013)
Studio(s)The Ladd Company (Warner Bros.)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C+
[Editor’s Note: The film portion of this review is by Adam Jahnke.]
Longtime readers of this site will be aware that we at The Bits have a bit of a soft spot when it comes to our space program. Why that is, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps we all secretly wanted to be astronauts when we were growing up. I know I did, at least until I realized that a C average in math wasn’t exactly going to impress anybody at NASA. Despite that admitted bias, you’ll have to trust me when I say that The Right Stuff, the spectacular film based on the original Mercury 7 astronauts, is bar none one of the best films of the 1980’s, whether you’re a far-out space nut like us or not.
Like many great films, Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff failed to make much impression on audiences during its original release. There are any number of reasons to explain why so few people saw The Right Stuff theatrically. First of all, it was a movie without any recognizable, bankable stars. At least, that was the case at the time. Watching it today, The Right Stuff is like an audition reel of America’s most dependable actors. The astronauts themselves are brought to vivid life by such stars as Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn and Fred Ward. The film depicts them not as the flawless, all-American heroes immortalized on the covers of Life magazine, but as specific and only too human men thrust into a spotlight many of their peers felt they did not deserve. There is real camaraderie between these men but there is also tension and rivalry. As the astronauts train, you feel the competition between them to be the first, fastest and longest in space. And the further into the system they get, you feel the bond that grows between them as they realize their contributions to the space program are being consistently undervalued by the scientists and engineers at NASA.
Another reason for the film’s initial reaction is its quirky tone and sense of humor, elements that were very much brought over from Tom Wolfe’s excellent book. People expecting a rah-rah portrayal of American heroes were surprised by the film’s comedic elements and seemingly ambivalent view of what the Mercury 7 program accomplished. The comedy is most apparent in scenes involving Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer as a Mutt and Jeff pair of NASA recruiters. But there is humor throughout the film, during the training sessions, in the winking performances of Quaid as hotshot Gordon Cooper and Harris’ gee-whiz John Glenn, and especially in the borderline cartoonish Lyndon Johnson personified by Donald Moffat. As for that ambivalence, the exploits of the Mercury 7 are contrasted throughout the film with the unsung envelope pushing of test pilot Chuck Yeager (a stoically brilliant performance by playwright Sam Shepard). While the astronauts were getting all the glory, Yeager continually tried to outdo himself in the realm between Earth and space. Chuck Yeager is the soul of this film and Shepard’s eyes speak volumes, whether he’s watching the astronauts give a press conference on TV or seeing a glimpse of what lies just on the other side of Earth’s atmosphere.
Of course, one of the biggest reasons for the film’s commercial failure was simply one of timing. The release of The Right Stuff coincided with John Glenn’s presidential bid in 1984 and audiences didn’t feel it was necessary to see a three-hour propaganda film for the Democratic hopeful. But The Right Stuff isn’t simply The John Glenn Story. It’s a true ensemble film, focusing equally on the astronauts, the test pilots as typified by Yeager, and the wives who had no choice but to sit and wait while their husbands risked their lives for goals that, to them, seemed murky at best. Kaufman handles all of these elements astonishingly well. The Right Stuff is one of those rare films that manages to be both ironic and sincere, simultaneously critical and inspirational. The fact that Kaufman acknowledges the premature idolatry of the Mercury 7 by both NASA and a willing-to-play-along media does nothing to take away from the exhilaration of their actual accomplishments when they do get into space. Philip Kaufman has made other great films since this one, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but this may well turn out to be his masterpiece. The Right Stuff captures a specific time and place unlike any other film of its kind. It’s a thrilling piece of filmmaking that deserves to be a part of every Blu-ray collection.
Thankfully, that’s finally possible with Warner’s new high-definition release. The 193-minute film is presented here in generally excellent image quality. It doesn’t appear that a new restoration has been done, but the argument probably goes that it wasn’t needed. Overall, the film looks very good in HD, and is true to the best theatrical presentations. It starts off a little soft, with blacks that are a bit gray and crushed looking. There’s also a good deal of archival footage used in the beginning which means it’s not really fair to judge the presentation quality too quickly. As the film continues, however, contrast and detail improve greatly and color is accurate at all times, resulting in a viewing experience that’s ultimately quite pleasing. This is the best we’ve ever seen the film looking and by a good margin. Audio-wise, Warner has matched these visuals with a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack newly-encoded with 96k upsampling. From Dolby’s white paper, this technology upsamples 48 kHz PCM content to 96 kHz to obtain “optimum performance from downstream connected A/V receivers equipped with 96 kHz digital-to-analog converters, enabling them to operate at their maximum efficiencies. Content created with Dolby’s advanced 96k upsampling feature is fully playback compatible on all Blu-ray devices.” (Just in case you were wondering, as were we.) While this film’s soundtrack isn’t quite dynamic by modern standards, it was state of the art in its day and – 96k upsampling or no – it’s never sounded better than it does here.
Unfortunately, Warner hasn’t seen fit to include new extras on this release, unless you consider 40-page BD Book packaging as bonus content. The book is actually quite nice, filled with production notes, behind-the-scenes photos and other details, and one should never say “no” to such things. Still more new disc-based content would have been appreciated. All of the extras you do get are on Disc Two of the set, which is essentially the same Disc Two found in the 2003 Special Edition DVD release. There’s “selected scene” commentary featuring Kaufman, the real Chuck Yeager (who served as a consultant on this film), actors Quaid, Ward, Harris, Moffat, Goldblum, Shearer, Barbara Hershey, David Clennon, Veronica Cartwright and Pamela Reed, director of photography Caleb Deschanel, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, composer Bill Conti and visual effects supervisor Gary Guttierez. This sounds a lot more impressive than it actually is, as it’s far too short to really satisfy. There’s also a trio of “making-of” featurettes that feel like pitches for a genuine full-length documentary (Realizing The Right Stuff, T-20 Years and Counting and The Real Men with The Right Stuff), 13 deleted scenes (presented in poor quality), the interactive Timeline to Space, the 1998 PBS John Glenn: American Hero documentary (which spends a great deal of time on Glenn’s recent return to space on the shuttle) and the theatrical trailer. Inside the book itself, there’s a reproduction of a letter written and signed by Kaufman specifically for this release in which he reminisces about his experiences in making the film.
The Right Stuff’s release on Blu-ray has been a very long time coming. From a presentation standpoint, it’s been worth the wait. Warner should absolutely have put more effort into creating genuinely new disc-based special features for this release, however. We know of any number of accomplished special edition producers who would have endured the same battery of tests NASA used to select its Mercury astronauts in the first place for the chance to revisit this film. That said, if this new Blu-ray gets more people to see this brilliant film, then it’s done at least that part of its job. The Right Stuff is a true classic that’s not to be missed.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke & Bill Hunt