After John Glenn died on 12.8 someone in the comment thread mentioned how great Phillip Kaufman‘s The Right Stuff (’83) was, and I disagreed as follows: “I’m sorry but The Right Stuff is not great. It’s a diverting film with some above-average passages, agreed, but too much of it feels like commoner soup. I expected some kind of semblance of the Tom Wolfe book, which was eloquent and savvy and well-researched and often funny, at least in a snickering sense.
“Almost every amusing element that landed in the Wolfe book fails to land in the film. Every scene in the Kaufman film feels broad and over-acted in order to appeal to the folks in the cheap seats. Urination jokes (i.e.. Alan Shepard letting go in his space suit), masturbation jokes, seasick-vomiting jokes, rubber-tube-up-the-ass jokes — everything primitive is used. Very little in the way of low-key, the-way-it-really-was pilot stuff. Almost every scene feels performed by actors.
“Wolfe wrote about Glenn (Ed Harris) telling Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) that he needs to stop catting around at the local cocktail lounges because it’ll be bad for the Mercury astronaut’s image if it gets out, and how Shepard told Glenn that girls are none of his damn business and to bugger off — great in the book, doesn’t work in the film.
“Wolfe wrote about Gus Grissom‘s ‘death dimes’ — two rolls of dimes that he took with him on his Mercury flight in order to pass them out to friends later on, but which made it difficult for him to tread water in the Atlantic after his capsule sank, because of their weight. (“And now this big junkheap of travel sentiment stuffed in his knee pocket was taking him under… dimes!…silver deadweight!”). Great in the book, ignored by Kaufman.
“I hate those awful, over-emphatic San Francisco mimes, cast as journalists, with their stubby little moustaches and narrow-brimmed hats running around like the Keystone Cops. And the absurdly crude portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as an intemperate oaf. And how Kaufman makes a big deal about Aborigine natives lighting bonfires as Glenn’s soars over Australia. I remember watching this back in ’83 and saying to myself ‘Who gives a fuck if Aborigines are lighting bonfires or not? What have Aborigines got to do with the space program?’
“The book was an absorbing, insightful take on a governmental program that promoted personalities and heroism to sell itself to the public. It passed along the technical intrigues of the early flights and especially the seminal Chuck Yeager lore and how that cockpit attitude influenced every pilot who ever lived. The film was a popcorn denigration — an attempt to make populist puree out of almost everything fascinating in Wolfe’s book.”