Look, it’s easy to poke holes in JFK. Shady election …Got a Vietnam snowball rolling for his successors … Literally the unstoppable sex machine, regardless of what that 90’s English duo thought. But look at this:
The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not. Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.
Have we the nerve and the will? That is the question of the New Frontier.
That is the choice our nation must make — a choice that lies not merely between two men or two parties, but between the public interest and private comfort, between national greatness and national decline, between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of “normalcy,” between dedication or mediocrity.
All mankind waits upon our decision. A whole world looks to see what we shall do. And we cannot fail that trust. And we cannot fail to try.
Don’t you want to feel that? I believe it’s been a long time since Americans could. Did John write those words himself? I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, his was the face and voice that delivered them, and you could believe in the future, and that there even was a future. That sometimes hasn’t seemed certain today, and it often didn’t back then. Seven men picked by the government at the end of the 1950s became heroes, living symbols of the New Frontier, and inspired the country, just because it was said that they were going to do something.
But they did.
As said above, for a long time people have been getting their souls stirred wherever they could manage to, if they didn’t give up on the enterprise. The jack slips from under Jonathan Kent’s pickup, dropping the truck on him, but the foundling Superman catches it, instinctively saving his adoptive father. Twenty eight years later he drops from the sky and slams into the Earth that has embraced him, and he her people, having used his last bit of strength to save them all once again. Young Spider-Man stops a runaway subway train from certain destruction and then collapses into the waiting arms of the passengers he kept safe. Rocky Balboa runs through the streets of Philadelphia, training for his shot at the heavyweight title. His role in the fight is a gimmick, but he’s not, and the cheering people he encounters on his run know that, especially the children that run alongside him. It doesn’t matter whether or not he’s going to win, he’s going to go the distance to prove to himself and Philadelphia (and every person watching this movie) that a written-off wretch can.
Well, this is a film about that kind of thing actually happening. Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, released in 1983 and based on Tom Wolfe’s novelistic history of the Mercury space program and the experimental aviation that set its stage, is a superhero story that was true. Twenty years after its events ended, and twenty-five years back from us, it stood up to herald something great, and has stood untarnished ever since, for anyone wanting to feel a little of the New Frontier for themselves, wanting something to be proud of. Caleb Deschanel, who’d make everyone wait for sunrise or sunset to shoot whenever he could get away with it, photographed the film like a stylized docudrama. It’s realistic and it all looks right, but in combination with the art department and exquisite lighting they achieve that retro-futuristic beauty, what your reviewer has described as “the short hair 60s,” that’s hard to conjure outside of comic books. Indeed Darwyn Cooke’s miniseries/graphic novel DC: The New Frontier, a retelling of the formation of the Justice League of America, is also an unapologetic homage to The Right Stuff as well as the unabashed pride, faith, wonder and optimism of the time. Now, there’s some evil mothers who are gonna tell you that everything is just dirt. The early 60s were most definitely not a utopia, and both this story and said comic book acknowledge that, but the potential people felt was real all the same, and some of it was even fulfilled. Some of it we’re still working on, or working on again, and there’s fear and doubt and cynicism, but there is potential and imagination and necessary invention too.
Not merely between two men or two parties, but between the public interest and private comfort, between national greatness and national decline, between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of “normalcy,” between dedication or mediocrity.
Fuckin’ A, Bubba.
It begins with a single man, not one of seven, looking to break the “that old demon,” the sound barrier, thought to be impossible to overcome, and deadly to provoke. This is Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard). The producers have said, “Yeager never got a parade. This is his parade.” We see him watch an experimental rocket plane auger in after the demon swats it away. We see him confront the next one. Coming over a ridge on horseback in the California brush, he sees the red-orange needle-nosed X-1 getting prepped. The X-1 looks up at him and malevolently grins. “Come on and ride me. I dare you.” Oh, he respects this evil beast, and it gives him a shiver, but he decides he’s not going to be scared off
Chuck Yeager is a test pilot. He has the right stuff. His companions die around him, but that’s part of the job. Nothin’ special, nothin’ heroic, don’t need a bonus, I’ve already got a paycheck, I’ll chase that demon for you because it’s what I do and hell, I’m not even sure it’s there. So when do we go?
And he did it.
Soon a swarm of pudknockers and hot dogs descend on Edwards Air Force Base to try to oust Yeager from “the top of the pyramid,” hoping to take up the hottest new jet and go higher and faster, pushin’ that envelope, while the endless strain of the test pilot’s wife goes on and on. “They tell me how cutthroat their husband’s work is on Madison Avenue, places like that. ‘Cutthroat.’ I wonder how they would’ve felt if each time their husband went in to make a deal, there was a 1 in 4 chance of him not coming out?” Does that stop these men? Does that stop the Air Force from endangering them day in and out? Of course not, that’s just what they do whether you like it or not. “You marry a fighter jock, you marry the military,” one woman says. More to the point, she adds, “men…sometimes they’re such … assholes.” This is Betty Grissom (Veronica Cartwright). Betty will eventually suffer more than anyone else we meet here. That doesn’t mean her story is unique though.
Chuck is still flying though, isn’t he? He hasn’t climbed down from the pyramid yet and continues to become the fastest man alive again and again. And then he’ll ask his partner Ridley (Levon Helm), “What’s next?” But what’s next now is Sputnik. “I for one do not intend to go to sleep by the light of a Communist moon,” says Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (Donald Moffat). Enter The Recruiters (Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer), the Mutt and Jeff suggesting acrobats and daredevils as space race candidates. But no, no no no, the President wants test pilots, who are so uncooperative and “a little too independent” according to his advisors, but Ike won’t budge. So the recruiters go to Edwards, showing up in Pancho’s, the communal test pilot hangout, looking for “astronauts,” and are met with doubt and derision. They’re looking for “lab rabbits” “ballistic missiles,” not men. The patron saint of the Edwards boys, Pancho Barnes (Kim Stanley) tells them “some peckerwood’s gotta take the beast up. And someone’s gotta bring the sonofabitch down. And that peckerwood is called a pilot.” Nonetheless, some of those Air Force pudknockers over in the corner are listening intently, namely Gordo Cooper, Virgil — I mean Gus — Grissom and Deke Slayton (Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward and Scott Paulin). Gus asks Gordo, “What the hell’s an ‘astronaut’?” “It means Star Voyager” “Star Voyager Gus Grissom … I kinda like the sound of that.” And so the candidate testing begins. But what does space travel do to the human body? Well, of course, no one knows, do they? So let’s do everything we can think of to stress the body and mind of a man and hope it applies.
Also, Chuck Yeager is not a college graduate. We’re only taking college personnel.
Clinical tests begin. One genial candidate, Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) introduces himself to John Glenn (Ed Harris), Mr. Clean Marine, who he’s seen on TV quiz shows, and offers to try to get some details on what’s happening to help them both. They will come to be named Archie and Jughead, aw shucks backslapping team players by gosh. The Air Force boys huddle like vultures, scowling at all the lesser non-Air Force candidates. A man who’s just received a series of painful electrical nerve inductions, whose testing purpose could not be explained, slumps into an armchair and turns to them, in the voice of TV character Jose Jimenez. “All Air Force pilots go in that door. When they all go in, they all look the same. But when they all come out … they all look different.” “How’s that, fella?” “When they all come out…they all look scared.” This is Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), a Naval Aviator, or swabbo if you ask Gordo, along with Jughead Carpenter and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen). Can’t trust a swabbo, let’s see what there really is to be scared of. They try their damnedest to scare, fray, frazzle, humble and break these men, and many go just that route. But these are the seven who withstand.
Enter the press, the hype, all the hullabaloo and all the noise. A triumphant press conference, “SEVEN AMERICANS! GENTLEMEN ALL! …who haven’t done a damn thing” sets Mercury rolling. John begins to find a niche as a spokesman here, prompting some of the others to flutter their plumage too. Gordo and Gus try to tell their long-suffering wives that this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for. They know their men too well to be easily assured, but everyone puts on as patient a face as possible. Then Yuri Gagarin happens and the USSR again takes the lead. We gotta get a man up there NOW. “Dear Lord, please don’t let me fuck up,” says the first American in space. Now there is a new pyramid. Who’s first? Who’s farthest? Orbital? How many orbits? John had angered his teammates by criticizing the way they jeopardize their squeaky clean public images while encamped in Florida. Gus counters that the issue is rather how NASA sees them. “What Gus is sayin’ here is that we gotta stick together on this one,” his buddy Gordo completes for him. This is where they truly bond, and learn to play politics, rebelling on their whitecoat taskmasters and threatening to talk about how the finest pilots in the land aren’t being allowed to be pilots. “You need funding, so you need them,” they say, pointing to the paparazzi outside the hangar gates, “and they wanna see Buck Rogers. And that’s us. No bucks, no Buck Rogers. Should I go talk to them about this?” They want control, pitch and yaw thrusters, they want a hatch with explosive bolts, they want a goddamn window. “Nothing will go wrong with the automatic systems.” “I said what if?” John points again to the press gang outside.
“Ja, there could maybe be a window on the capsule” “Spacecraft” “Ja…..spacecraft…for the astronaut” “Pilot. Astronaut pilot.”
The pilots back in California scoff and laugh at the spam in a can being sent up to do a monkey’s job. “You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that could explode? Those astronaut boys do,” says Chuck, “and they’re willing to do it on live TV.” Chuck can now see that they’re chasing the demon too, in a new way that he can’t, even if that’s not what the government quite wanted them for. It certainly doesn’t all go smoothly. There’s definitely more demons up there in the fire of re-entry, and bad luck in the ocean. Even though they’re a team, some of the astronauts have to live with qualified or compromised success. Some are eventually able to reach satisfaction, and some don’t make it. Regarding his already eclipsed status as national hero of the week as the flights go on, Alan, with a determination that would never leave him, says to his ever-patient wife, “I’m gonna go to the moon, I swear to God.”
And he did.
This occurs toward the end of the film after being asked “Where’s Glenn?” With one man still left to launch, Vice President Johnson has welcomed them to their new Houston home with a titanic barbecue in a rodeo stadium, complete with a backlit fan dance by Sally Rand. As Sally’s giant feathers sweep through the white haze of illuminated barbecue smoke, the seven enjoy a moment of peace and silently acknowledge to themselves and each other what they’ve suffered and achieved together. Set against this graceful moment is Chuck once again seeing how far he can push it. He’s been left behind on Earth, looking up, for years now, but he provides the heart-stopping climax of the film in the experimental F-104 Starfighter. In a literal sense, it’s only almost a transcendent moment. In regards to the right stuff, however, your reviewer cannot maintain composure at this point, particularly after the delivery of one of the most stirringly quotable lines ever uttered, which he wouldn’t dream of spoiling.
In fact, there is much that is not being said here, and you’ll have to trust and forgive. All of this is history. Conflated, dramatized, exaggerated, even guessed, but still history. You can find out who went up when and who lived and died and after how many flights or orbits in a few minutes. But this film tells a story and doesn’t assume you know it all. It almost seems to hope you don’t as you’ll be even more thrilled. To quote Brad Neely, wildly out of context but applicably, this is a story of brotherhood and balls. The government spokesmen said, “Hey America, these seven guys have the biggest balls in the country!” and asked that you take their word for it. It was a campaign, it was a pageant, it was a constructed myth. But this is a story of one man, and then seven others (with the unsung armies of wizards at Houston and Cape Canaveral), who proved that it’s not always just bullshit, and that there are people and achievements worth looking up to, and being inspired by.
Jay Nagy is a librarian in Atlanta. This is partly because he can’t make money writing or taking pictures, but it’s also what he’s supposed to be. He doesn’t talk to strangers until you mention something he’s interested in, or at least ask a question, which you can do, as well as see some pictures or say hello, via his blog. Like his mouth, it’s quiet unless you say something first.
The Right Stuff / Guest Critic: Jay Nagy
Underappreciated Gems | November 24, 2008 | Comments ()