Epic yet somehow light on its feet, incredibly heroic and patriotic without ever slipping into phony jingoism, and massively entertaining above all else, Philip Kaufman’s iconic 1983 American masterpiece The Right Stuff is a shining example of dramatic, true life cinema done absolutely correct. The story of the great space race between the U.S. and Russia has been explored many times throughout pop culture but it’s never been given this sort of grand, sweeping treatment. The cast assembled for this film was extraordinary: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Jeff Goldblum, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Lance Henriksen and Harry Shearer, with everyone getting their chance to shine and nobody ever forgetting the value of a great ensemble. Caleb Deschanel’s soaring, gorgeous cinematography fills the screen with one unforgettable image after another, all crafted in camera before the onslaught of CGI, in various aspect ratios, mixing archival footage and re-enactments into the proceedings flawlessly thanks to the remarkably fluid cutting from a five editor team.
Bill Conti’s massive musical score envelopes the entire film but never overpowers it, with stirring passages that rock the heart and soul. The three hour and 15 minute director’s cut Blu-ray has a fantastic image quality and the Oscar winning sound design roars from speaker to speaker with all levels perfectly calibrated. It’s hysterical how much Michael Bay stole from this movie for Armageddon, and I never realize how much Christopher Nolan cribbed from The Right Stuff during the first hour of Interstellar; it was also lovely to see the influence that Kubrick’s 2001 had on Kaufman during numerous scenes in The Right Stuff. Filmmakers have inspired their peers throughout the years with their boundary pushing work, and with a movie like The Right Stuff, it’s easy to see why so many people hold it close to their heart. It’s an impossibly mythic film, stretching from 1947 to 1965, tracing the birth of the test-pilot era all the way to the first men sent up into space, told in classic linear fashion, at an unhurried but smooth pace, with no boring spots or wasted moments. What a magnificent accomplishment.