Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Who’s Really Got The Right Stuff?

The death of aviator Chuck Yeager last week at age 97 took me by surprise. Frankly, I thought he had died long ago. After all, Yeager’s great era was the 1940s, when the World War II flying ace-turned-test-pilot entered the annals of aviation history by breaking the sound barrier. He continued to fly well into the 1960s, setting records while testing out new designs for the U.S. military and for NASA. Though his lack of a college degree (as well as a strong independent streak) prevented him from entering the astronaut corps, he managed to outlive all seven of the Mercury astronauts who were the first Americans to be sent into space. (The last of them, John Glenn, passed on in 2016 at age 95.)

 I learned about Yeager’s contributions while reading The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 non-fiction account of the Mercury program. Wolfe, a pioneer of so-called New Journalism, dug deep to get at the minute details of the first astronauts’ experiences. But, being a natural-born cynic, Wolfe saw far beyond the heroics, taking a jaded view of seven red-blooded American guys who were being held up to the world as role models. For Wolfe, the true hero was Yeager, whose stoic independence of spirit and complete disregard for celebrity lifted him far beyond the achievements of the astronaut corps, whose chief obligation was to be shot into space as what he called “spam in a can.”

 Following on the heels of Wolfe’s book was Philip Kaufman’s 1983 film version of The Right Stuff, which vividly sets up the contrast between Yeager and the Mercury Seven. Yeager, played in an Oscar-nominated performance by playwright-turned-actor Sam Shepard, is tough, taciturn, and ready for anything. Posted out among the Joshua trees of California’s high desert, he rides horses, drinks deep at the local watering hole, and vies playfully with his earthy, beautiful wife (Barbara Hershey). When the call comes to take a newly designed aircraft through the legendary sound barrier, he doesn’t hesitate, even though he’s secretly coping with broken ribs. Nerves of steel . . . he’s got them.

 The Mercury guys are brave too, though in many cases far less disciplined. The film follows them through a selection and training process that often seems arbitrary and rather silly. And their own quirks don’t improve our view of them.  Alan Shepard (that’s Scott Glenn playing the man who would become the first American in space) has a maddening habit of dropping into Jose Jimenez routines, parroting comedian Bill Dana’s pseudo-Mexican character who was widely popular at the time. (In the film, a Latino medical staffer working with NASA is definitely not amused.) Buddies Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) and Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), both theoretically family men,are all too ready to violate their marriage vows with Cocoa Beach lovelies. Meanwhile, the long-suffering Mercury wives are angling for White House tête-à-têtes with Jackie Kennedy.

 The one true Boy Scout in the Mercury ranks is John Glenn, winningly played by Ed Harris. He’s depicted as highly protective of his own wife, who suffers from a debilitating stutter. And he’s not above lecturing the others on how their misbehavior sheds a bad light on the program. But he’s also quick to act as a spokesman when the group feels itself exploited by NASA. No wonder he’s the one Mercury astronaut who ended up in politics.   

 Kaufman’s film is not without its flaws, like an ending that never seems to end.  What I’ll remember is Ed Harris’s smile and Sam Shepard’s ritual request for a stick of Beeman’s gum before each bold flight.




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