"Well, I'll tell you something, it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that's on TV. Ol' Gus, he did all right." - Chuck Yeager
"They don't spend a god-damned thing teaching you how to be the fearless wife of a fearless test pilot." - Glennis Yeager
Director: Phillip Kaufman
Writer: Tom Wolfe, Phillip Kaufman
Principal cast members:
It is likely that no country on earth will ever again undertake a research program so daring and so audacious that the histories of it read like an adventure novel. But such is the development of spaceflight that occurred, beginning with the development of jet aircraft in the forties and continuing through the Apollo program of the sixties. The men who made this happen took incredible risks and performed acts of aeronautical bravery and excellence the likes of which may never be seen again. These men, in the words of author Tom Wolfe, had the 'Right Stuff'.
The story captured in this film does a fine job of covering all the bases. We learn about the technical and physical demands, the cold war pressures and public relations concessions that went with the program, as well as the personal toll it took on these men and most especially on their wives and families. The book and movie can barely scratch the surface, but the story is told here with images and words that are patriotically stirring, humorously revealing, and poignantly powerful.
The tale begins with Chuck Yeager taking on the task of breaking the sound barrier - a feat many thought couldn't be done and which some felt attempting was certain death. Yeager gets the opportunity when civilian Bell company test pilot 'Slick' Goodlin refuses to take on the task without a guaranteed $150,000. History is unclear if it was Goodlin's demand or, as he claims, the Air Force's PR machine that put Yeager in the cockpit but history is certain on one thing: Yeager was the first to fly Mach 1.
Soon, every hot test pilot in the Air Force is headed to Edwards Air Force Base to 'push the outside of the envelope' and fly higher and faster than anyone else. Engineers and inventors are also pushing themselves and technology to the limits trying to create aircraft capable of meeting these demands.
Then, in 1957, the USSR launches a satellite into space and the entire game changes. Now it will all be about putting a man in space and bringing him back. The space race has begun. The government begins looking for seven men who have 'the right stuff' which in this case means fitting certain profiles. Having a college degree and a strong, stable home life are considered essential. The movie doesn't discuss the need to be white, but then it was probably hard to find a qualified pilot in the late fifties who wasn't. The armed services weren't exactly bastions of equal opportunity.
From there, the movie spends considerable time documenting the rise of the space program step-by-step with particular focus on the personal toll this process was taking on the astronauts and their wives. It also explored briefly the feelings of those left behind by the program - perhaps the two greatest pilots of the era: Yeager and Scott Crossfield.
In the opening minutes, the movie focuses on Yeager. But we are introduced to the world of dangerous fight testing with the voice of Levon Helm, drummer and lead singer of The Band, who plays Jack Ridley, the Air Force engineer who designed the flight profiles for the X-1 program. He and Yeager are good friends with an obvious level of trust and a professional relationship that underscores the truth: test flying is about precision and data, not being a cowboy and setting records.
Sam Shepherd plays Yeager, a supremely gifted pilot and war hero who approaches test flying the same way he approaches everything: he does his job and he does it well. Barbara Hershey plays Yeager's wife, Glennis. History will record that most of these hard-living and adrenaline-fueled men were unfaithful to their wives during their careers and Yeager was apparently no exception, but the movie shows us Chuck and Glennis very much in love. It depicts the kind of relationship that would lead a man to paint his woman's name on the nose of every aircraft he flew.
The pilot's hangout is Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club, where the bar is tended by Pancho Barnes played by Kim Stanley. The movie depicts Pancho as a friend to the pilots and as an interested spectator in all their exploits. It fails to show the real Pancho Barnes who got along with the pilots so well because she was one of them. Pancho Barnes is an amazing story herself, a skilled pilot and Powder Puff Derby racer.
As the fame and glory of test flying grow, new pilots head west to Edwards including Gordo Cooper played by Dennis Quaid and Gus Grissom played by Fred Ward. The duo bring with them their wives and as they begin to form a community of test pilots in the desert, it is the wives we see paying the price of living in substandard housing and knowing the death toll for men in their husband's line of work is insanely high.
The movie casts Royal Dano as the undertaker on the base and his presence in the background during test flights, drinking in the bar, and around the base underscores the constant presence of death and danger for these men and their families. As Trudy Cooper, Pamela Reed is particularly good. It was absolutely vital for ambitious officers (and future astronauts) to have a good marriage. Trudy Cooper, who was a skilled pilot herself, actually left her husband during those Edwards days, taking their two daughters back to San Diego. But when Gordon Cooper entered the Mercury program, Trudy returned to play the dutiful wife and keep his career aspirations alive. While this isn't explored in the film in depth, Reed is superb at showing the psychic toll on the women who attached themselves to these men.
As the program takes off, the camaraderie between the seven Mercury astronauts builds and they become a cohesive unit of extremely proud, patriotic symbols of America's technology. Ed Harris plays John Glenn who, more than any other astronaut, came to symbolize everything the government wanted the public to believe about NASA and the space program. In truth, all seven of these men lived fascinating lives and were amazing stories though for most of them, the most exciting parts came after the Mercury program. For instance, while Grissom's Mercury flight is tainted with the loss of a capsule and unjustified hints of cowardice, it is worth noting that Grissom is one of few men who served in all three programs of the sixties: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, before dying tragically during a capsule test during Apollo I.
With all the excitement and heroism of the Mercury program, the film closes with Chuck Yeager's test flight of the NF-104, a modified fighter designed to probe the limits of the atmosphere. The flight ended when Yeager lost control of the aircraft above 100,000 feet and had to endure extreme G-loads for several minutes before he was low enough to eject. Then, the rocket booster on his ejection seat set his helmet's faceplate on fire causing severe burns. But he survived and the movie naturally ends with Yeager walking away from the crash, clearly a living example of 'the Right Stuff.'
For aviation and space enthusiasts, the movie is a gold mine of spectacular scenes and imagery. The chemistry between the actors is superb, though the scenes and time-lapse really don't allow it to develop as much as we want. Some of the warmest and most human scenes are with the wives who develop their own support system and are the movie's channel for showing us the human cost and the reality of just how dangerous this program was. The scenes between Ed Harris and Mary Jo Deschanel as Annie Glenn are especially heart-warming. Annie had a serious stuttering problem which made the necessary public appearances and political schmoozing extremely difficult. John was very protective of her and as time went on, the other wives became equally adept at shielding Annie from the stress of having to communicate in public.
The movie also sports a host of secondary roles with superb actors filling them. Donald Moffatt is great as Lyndon Johnson who considers the space program his personal property. Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum offer a Laurel-and-Hardy-esque pair of NASA recruiters and even Chuck Yeager himself gets a cameo as Fred, the hired hand sweeping up at the Happy Bottom.
NOTE: For those wanting to learn more about the women behind the astronauts of the 60s and 70s, the book "The Astronaut Wives Club" by Lily Koppel can be interesting reading. I can't recommend it as a book - her writing really isn't that good. But it does contain a great many anecdotes and a more personal look at the wives and families.
ADDED NOTE: In 1993, I got to see Scott Crossfield present a program on the X-15 rocket plane. While NASA's future astronauts (like Neil Armstrong) were the men who flew the X-15 to all-time speed and altitude records, it was Crossfield who tested the aircraft before the NASA pilots were allowed into it. He is the one who discovered instability issues in ground effect that resulted in a crash landing. He was also the one who discovered the instability of an experimental high-powered rocket engine that blew up inches behind his back on a test platform. During the presentation, someone asked Scott if he wasn't tempted to take the X-15 to a new speed or altitude record in his final test flight - the last flight of the entire program. Without cracking a smile, Crossfield said, "No, of course not. I flew the mission profile. That was my job"
And that, boys and girls, is what being a test pilot is REALLY about.
Coolness factor: 8
Overall entertainment: 7