The Right Stuff (1983) Directed by Philip Kaufman

I wanted to watch this film because of Sam Shepard. I remembered that he rides his horse through the barren land of California to a shed-like bar to drink whiskey in excess and to dance with his cool wife (Barbara Hershey). I also thought that they ride back to their house, make love in khaki sheets, and have long after-sex discussions naked with some body parts showing. But a lot of this was just dreaming, because Sam is hardly in The Right Stuff and when he is, he mostly flies his boring and fast plane or makes some dull remark on the ridiculousness of the American space project. The poetry and sex were entirely a product of my imagination.

In the early 1970s Sam Shepard went under the name Slim Shadow and he was a drummer. I know this because I just finished Just Kids by Patti Smith. He was also a successful (and married) off-Broadway playwright, but Patti did not know that when they first met. What is so attractive about the idea of a drummer-playwright-novelist-actor guy? I guess there is something there that gives license to my imagination. It's certainly a sexier idea than a space man.

In reality The Right Stuff is a long-winded movie about the beginning of the US space project. It does not tackle any interesting questions like what might they find in space? Why do they have to go out there? Or why did so many astronauts turn to god after floating in space? The space is fascinating, this movie isn't. We are given the most boring documentary-like look into how the first seven American astronauts prepare for their expeditions. The men are portrayed as simple meat-and-potatoes guys, so it does not take much effort from Sam Shepard to appear more intelligent as the lonely cowboy test pilot. You know what, they should have given his role to Clint Eastwood. Then I would have not made the mistake of re-watching this film at all, because he was never a drummer or a novelist...

"Those magnificent men in  their flying machines,......"
I was quite surprised when Astrid suggested we re-watch The Right Stuff. But then I remembered she's reading Patti Smith's book Just Kids which features Mr Sam Shepard. Sam, if you didn't know, is a playwright, actor, author, director and all round cool dude. He's even won a Pulitzer prize, though I'm more impressed by his book about Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Tour. So before Patti he lived with Charles Mingus, since Patti he's been with Jessica Lange. You could say that Sam is the thinking woman's heart throb. I think this explains a lot about his appeal in The Right Stuff.

Shephard plays the laconic and illusive Chuck Yeager, whom, when he can be bothered, casually breaks the sound barrier flying some kind of orange rocket. He's a pilot who shows no fear and is admiringly  backed up by his wife Glennis, played by the criminally under-used Barbara Hershey. The fact that Hershey is playing Yaeger's wife already distinguishes him as a different class of pilot. The film then follows a bunch of other pilots as they train to be the first Americans in space: yes, astronauts. The Right Stuff is three hours long, based on real events that span the late 1940's to the mid-1960's. It has a decent cast and is at times witty and sardonic. But the screen only really lights up when Shepard's pilot cowboy moodily hovers.

While watching The Right Stuff other thoughts overtake me. The Space Race showed a rare willingness and excitement about exploration which seems to have died now. No longer does man seek to explore other planets in any meaningful way. The planet Earth is surrounded by all kinds of Space Stations and satellites that seem to be monitoring us, here on earth and not...them in outer space.


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