Starring Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward

Written for the Screen and Directed by Philip J. Kaufman; adapted from the book of the same name by Tom Wolfe

Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel

A soaring multifaceted love letter to the early aeronauts and astronauts of NASA’s early days (and their wives), and an arresting celluloid journey through the many styles and tricks of film photography, THE RIGHT STUFF is one of America’s finest films.
The adaptation from the massive Tom Wolfe opus was understandably complicated, with legendary writer William Goldman dropping out after disagreements with director Kaufman, who eventually wrote the entire script himself; the film and it’s varied themes becoming a personal piece for him.
The cast is an ensemble of actors whose careers were subsequently launched: Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Ed Harris as the immortal John Glenn, Fred Willard as tragic Gus Grissom, Dennis Quaid is one of his finest roles as jokester Gordo Cooper, and the list goes on, with great small parts from Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer and The Band drummer Levon Helm, who narrates.
The heart of the film, and the bookend for the astronauts’ exploits, however, is aviation hero Chuck Yeager, the near-mythological perfect pilot, who broke the sound barrier and became the progenitor of the Mercury Seven. Sam Shepard plays Yeager not as the Evil Knievel of the skies, but a 20th century cowboy who took the job as ace war hero and then, a record breaking aviator, as calmly and unassumingly as a man driving to an office job. His love story with fiery wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey) in the film adds luster to the slightly fantastical Homeric allegories of Yeager and his death-defying peers shredding the skies above tiny, rustic Edwards Air Force base and the watering hole where dead pilots’ pictures line the walls. British film historian David Thomson picked up on Kaufman’s relative obsession with Yeager as part of the film (a small presence in the Wolfe book):
“I think Kaufman picked Shepard for the way he represents the movie star as real man and existentialist … a man in a leather jacket on a horse meeting a jet plane in the desert. That is an arresting image, and Shepard is all that Kaufman wanted in The Right Stuff.”

In STUFF, then-thirty-nine year old Caleb Deschanel received the first of his six (and still counting) Oscar nominations for cinematography, and it’s perhaps his most impressive work in an incredible career. From Yeager’s first stunning bursting of the sound barrier to his fiery attempt at the altitude record years later, Deschanel utilized breathtaking combinations of real-time 1950s and 60s aircrafts in flight, models, matte work and clever backdrop work. In between, the film is chock full of memorable imagery: a comically troubling melange of failed attempts at rocket take-offs, a trippy (and true to life) orbital journey with John Glenn when he sees “fireflies” outside the capsule window and his memorable, nerve-shattering re-entry, in which he hums patriotic tunes to calm himself, the instantly silly, but then strangely perfect feather-dance sequence played to Debussy’s Clair de Lune, bringing the fraternal camaraderie of each Mercury Seven astronaut to a sobering, tearful conclusion, and, finally, the last ride of Yeager, volunteering to set a new altitude record in a state-of-the-art jet. Flying straight vertical at ungodly speed, Yeager reaches and pierces the stratosphere to the edge of space, seeing nothing but dark and stars and for one startling moment crossing the threshold between worlds and becoming an astronaut himself…
Crash-landing moments later, Shepard’s Yeager walks away from the burning hulk, his flightsuit and broken helmet covered with burnt oil, a knowing smile on his face. STUFF is a ride for the ages.