I was reminded earlier that today is the 50th anniversary of Astronaut Gordon Cooper's flight in the Faith 7 spacecraft around the Earth 22 times over 34 hours in space in what would be the final mission of the Project Mercury human spaceflight program. It inspired me to want to write about the movie that dramatizes this event, as well as many others, that characterized the early days of America's space program, Philip Kaufman's masterpiece "The Right Stuff" (1983), based on Tom Wolfe's best selling book. I've been wanting to write about this movie for a long time, as it has special significance in my family's life. It is probably my brother's favorite movie and was the first movie we ever rented and watched at home when we bought our first VCR. I took it for granted at the time but over the years I have also grown to love it as much as he does. I now recognize it for the genuine masterpiece that it is. However, even though I always liked the movie, I wish I had been able to properly appreciate it at the time of its original release. It's only because of life experiences, which includes having had the opportunity to become friends with accomplished current and former military personnel who helped me to better understand the concepts and themes that "The Right Stuff" represents, that I have been able to develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of the movie.
I even attended a 20th anniversary screening of the movie in 2003 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood that Warner Home Video hosted to commemorate the release of the Special Edition DVD. As I recall, Ed Harris, Barbara Hershey, Philip Kaufman, Veronica Cartwright, Fred Ward, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer, Pamela Reed, Kathy Baker, Mary Jo Deschanel, Lance Henriksen, Scott Wilson, were all in attendance that night along with Chuck Yeager and Gordon Cooper. I invited a good friend from college to attend with me that night, and it was one of the most inspiring Q&A movie screenings I ever attended when I still lived in Los Angeles. I remember being very touched at realizing how close Barbara Hershey, who played Chuck Yeager's real-life wife Glynnis, and Pamela Reed, who played Gordon Cooper's real-life wife Trudy, became with Yeager and Cooper while working on the movie. Each of those actresses, as I recall, had genuine chemistry on-stage with those great men that you simply can't artificially manufacture, but that comes from developing a sincere connection with another human being.
I also remember how, throughout the entire movie, the audience continually applauded at all of their favorite scenes and bits of dialogue. At the end of the movie, after Air Force Colonel Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) ejects from the new Lockheed NF-104A that he is attempting to set a new record in, his friend and colleague Colonel Jack Ridley (Levon Helm) rides out with a medic to search for him. As they drive towards the wreckage and see smoke trail into the sky, they see a figure emerge from the wreckage walking in their direction. The medic points at it and asks Ridley, "Sir, over there, is that a man?" to which Ridley responds with pleasure, "Yeah, you're damn right it is!" to indicate not only is that Yeager, and that he's still alive, but that he is THE man that stands tall above all other men. Ten years later, I still vividly remember how the audience reacted with joyful and approving applause in reaction to Ridley's response. It was just a great, great night at the movies.
I think the reason why that particular line, as well as all the other delightful and joyful moments in "The Right Stuff," evoked such an emphatic reaction from the audience was not merely because they were watching a movie they loved. I believe they were also reacting to to how the movie evoked memories of how the Mercury, and all the subsequent, human spaceflight programs of the United States inspired a sense of awe and wonder in all of mankind. As such, "The Right Stuff" is a movie that celebrates genuine achievement and accomplishment. We live in an era where people are called stars and celebrities by mere virtue of appearing as themselves on reality shows, or becoming infamous public figures by committing notorious acts, and where parents raise their children to believe that merely participating and meeting the minimum requirements of any scholastic accomplishment or athletic competition is enough to warrant praise and reward commensurate with the pinnacle of success. The result is a population made up of narcissistic and immature people with a sense of entitlement who believe that they deserve respect and status without working hard to earn it.
The characters and events depicted in "The Right Stuff" come from an era where not only genuine accomplishment and achievement were still valued, but that success was earned through hard work and not just handed out. The astronauts of the Mercury 7 space program became celebrities and enjoyed the material luxury and notoriety that their accomplishments earned for them, but it was still the gravy. The actual work remained the meat that sustained their endeavors. "The Right Stuff" is honest in demonstrating how these men enjoyed the fruits of their labor, but it makes sure to remind us that that was not their ultimate motivation. They were motivated not by the fame and public adoration that came with their success, but by the knowledge that they were actively contributing to a momentous endeavor that would advance the development of mankind. Throughout "The Right Stuff" are several key scenes that help to vividly underscore this theme.
When I was younger, I never really understood the nuances that underscored the scene where John Glenn (Ed Harris) confronts the other astronauts over what he perceives to be their adulterous promiscuity by giving in to the attentions of admiring females while they are in training. He recognizes the sense of responsibility that they all have in remaining admirable public figures who do not give in to temptation and, as a result, end up doing something inappropriate because of their newfound popularity and appeal. This evokes an angry reaction from Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), who feels that it's none of anyone's business what the astronauts in the Mercury program do in their personal off-hours. A fight breaks out among the men until Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) attempts to restore order by reminding them all "John's right. Now, whether we like it or not, we're public figures. Whether we deserve it or not, people are gonna look up to us. We have got a tremendous responsibility here."
Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) helps the men put it all in the proper perspective by pointing out that the real issue they need to be fighting over isn't about female fans and groupies. As Grissom explains, "The issue here is monkey....Us. We are the monkey." Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin) helps develop the crux of Grissom's argument by explaining to the others that "What Gus is saying is that we're missing the point. What Gus is saying is that we all heard the rumor that they want to send a monkey up first. Well none of us wants to think that they're gonna send a monkey up to do a man's work. But what Gus is saying is that what they're trying to do to us is send a man up to do a monkey's work. Us, a bunch of college trained chimpanzees...All right, so what Gus is saying is that we got to change things around here. He's saying that we are pilots. And we know more about what we need to fly this thing than anybody else. So what we have to do is to alter the experiment. And what that comes down to is who is gonna control this thing from here on out."
The theme about this scene that it took me many years to understand is the fact that these men do not want to be passive participants--in essence, mere passengers--in the exploration of space. They want to make sure that their education, training, skills and experience as pilots are put to active use when operating the spacecraft. They don't want to merely be monkeys taking a ride in the spacecraft and helping to facilitate its operation through repetitive training. The scene that builds upon this theme occurs moments later when the astronauts examine a prototype spacecraft that they are expected to simply be a passenger on-board. (It must be noted that concerns regarding the film's depiction of the real-life working relationship between the astronauts and the scientists were raised by the astronauts themselves. This is a genuine issue for any film that purports to dramatize actual individuals and events. As such, while this scene does a good job underscoring the themes I am describing, it must be noted that it may not do as good a job at accurately dramatizing historical fact.) As they examine it, Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) asks the scientists and engineers who designed and constructed it, "Uh, where you plannin' on puttin' a window?" When the scientists indicate that there is no window on the prototype, Gus Grissom responds "No window? What about the hatch?...Yeah, the hatch. We need a hatch with explosive bolts that we can open ourselves." When the scientists insist that this is the final form of the capsule and that there is no hatch, Deke Slayton asks "What would happen if the automatic controls went out?" When the scientist responds through gritted teeth that that would never happen, Slayton continues, "I said, what would happen if it did?" Scott Carpenter interjects, "The pilot would have to fly it back" if such a malfunction occurred.
In order to make their point and leverage their influence, John Glenn and the other men remind the scientists that they could take their concerns to the press and that bad publicity could shut down funding for the program. Cooper explains to the scientists, "Do you boys know what makes this bird go up? Funding makes this bird go up." As Grissom underscores, "That's right. No bucks...No Buck Rogers." Glenn tells the scientists, "You see, those fellows over there, they've been making us out as the seven finest and bravest pilots in all America. And if a story were to come out in the press that we were not being allowed to fly as pilots..." As a result, the men begin to convince the scientists to go back to the drawing boards to include a window, a hatch with explosive bolts "on the capsule" as the scientist says through gritted teeth.
Alan Shephard corrects the scientist's characterization of it as a capsule by telling him "THAT is a spacecraft, sir. We do not refer to it as a 'capsule.' Spacecraft." The scientist responds, "Ja, a hatch with explosives bolts on the...Spacecraft. There. And there will be pitch and yaw thrusters which will enable the astronaut-occupant" to which Deke Slayton interjects "The pilot. Astronaut-pilot." This causes the scientist to again acquiesce through gritted teeth, "Ja, the astronaut-pilot...to have some...to have control of the re-entry procedures." In so doing, the Mercury 7 astronauts take an active role in contributing to the design and development of the spacecraft that they will be operating in space. They have helped to ensure that the spacecraft allows them to see the environment surrounding it and that they will have controls to operate and be able to easily exit in the event of an emergency. By standing their ground, they have ensured that they are contributing to the Mercury 7 program as skillful pilots, rather than merely participating in it as "monkeys."
As the astronauts' fame and notoriety begin to expand with public tributes and celebrations in their honor, Gordon Cooper remarks to Gus Grissom, while attending a large-scale indoor barbecue in Houston, Texas being held in honor of all the astronauts, that the steaks served there taste the same as the ones served at Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club restaurant and bar when they were still serving as test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert. Cooper elaborates, with a bit of embarrassment, "only there's a lot more trimmings now, Gus. You know, it's funny. I mean, here I am, I got me 25 Grand a year for a magazine contract. I got a free house with all the furnishings. I got me a Corvette. I got a free lunch from one end of America to the other, and I ain't even been up there yet...Well, I guess they're saving the best for last." Cooper's discomfort stems from the fact that he doesn't feel he has earned the fame and rewards that entails being a member of the Mercury 7. For him, because of the sequence and timing of his flight, the process of success and accomplishment has been reversed. He has been given the spoils of success without having done the actual work that distinguishes himself enough to have earned it. Cooper's attitude reflects the old-school thinking that genuine satisfaction comes from knowing you have worked hard to earn the material comforts that you are now enjoying. It doesn't mean anything when it's simply handed to you.
Which is why the finale of the movie, depicting the launch of Gordon Cooper's flight into space on the Faith 7 aircraft, which took place 50 years ago today, has such resonance and impact. Throughout the movie, we have seen the preparation and training that Cooper, and the other astronauts, have put into becoming ready for the momentous occasion of orbiting the Earth in outer space. As the spacecraft rises into the sky, and the sun shines in through the window that Cooper insisted earlier needed to be integrated into the design of the spacecraft, Cooper remarks with genuine awe "Oh Lord, what a Heavenly light." Cooper knows that his hard work throughout his career has paid off by having earned the privilege of seeing the sun from a perspective that few will ever get to see. As Levon Helm's stirring narration intones at the end, "on that glorious day in May 1963, Gordon Cooper went higher, farther, and faster than any other American. Twenty-two complete orbits around the world. He was the last American ever to go into space alone. And, for a brief moment, Gordo Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen."
I'm always deeply moved and choked up by that last line whenever I watch "The Right Stuff" because it underscores the degree to which I am in awe of what Cooper, the other men of the Mercury program, and future astronauts who would follow them, would accomplish in their exploration of space. I think it has to do with the fact that they accomplished something that not only fulfilled their individual lifelong dreams and aspirations, but also made contributions on a much broader scope by improving and advancing mankind. Their sense of honor and integrity, as well as ambition and desire for achievement, allowed them to have what it takes to make their mark in the successful exploration of Space--in essence, The Right Stuff--that far too many individuals are lacking in these days. The standards they set are the ones we should continue to aspire to, and "The Right Stuff" as a movie does a superb job of reminding us about that.