Picks and Pans Review: The Right Stuff

updated 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Based on Tom Wolfe's book about the original seven Project Mercury astronauts, this film has flight scenes that are exhilarating, often giving the audience the feeling of being in the cockpit. The acting, by an ensemble cast, is uniformly splendid. Director-writer Philip (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) Kaufman can claim credit for those virtues. But he's also to blame for the film's simplistic attitudes, stupid mysticism and cheap shots at the public, the press and government officials. The movie tells two stories. One is about test pilot Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier; he is played, with the right John Wayne touches, by playwright-actor Sam (Frances) Shepard. The other story is about the astronaut program. Wolfe's point was to contrast the solitary courage and enterprise of men like Yeager with the illusions built around the astronauts. Kaufman muddies that idea; his astronauts come out as buddy-buddy heroes facing a hostile world. It's not the actors' fault. Scott Glenn as Alan Shepard, Ed Harris as John Glenn, Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper and Fred Ward as Gus Grissom portray the roles Kaufman has written in a natural, convincing style. (Veronica Cartwright as Mrs. Grissom and Pamela Reed as Mrs. Cooper are striking too.) But Kaufman, in addition to playing fast and loose with the truth, injects jarring elements. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, is depicted as a dolt; there's a fiendishly hypocritical NASA official, but Kaufman lacks the courage to use the official's name. (He is presumably alive and, unlike Johnson, able to defend himself.) There is also some lengthy nonsense (the film runs 3 hours, 11 minutes) about aborigines and Sally Rand. And there is a bizarre fascination with bodily functions (separate incidents involve urine samples, sperm samples and bowel movements). All this dims the film's triumphs. Kaufman has made a big, small-minded movie. (PG)

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