The Right Stuff

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1983

The Ladd Company/Warner Bros.

Directed by and Screenplay by Philip Kaufman

Produced by Irwin Winkler/Robert Chartoff\

Based on “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe

Music by Bill Conti

Cinematography by Caleb Deschanel

One of the reasons why THE RIGHT STUFF stands out in my memory is because I saw it during its original theatrical run in the theater. And when the end credits played, a good 75% of the sold out audience I saw it with gave it a standing ovation. And I was right with them. I’ve heard felgercarb from modern day “movie fans” who are so very worldly and sophisticated and think it’s oh so very silly to applaud a movie. What’s the point? they say. The filmmakers can’t hear your applause. But in the case of THE RIGHT STUFF that isn’t the point. That audience and I stood and applauded because we’d just seen a three-hour epic about heroism done with style, respect, humor and grandeur. And we had to show our appreciation for how the movie made us felt. And the bottom line is that it made us all feel damn good. Was a lot of the movie made up? Sure it was. THE RIGHT STUFF is a great example of that magnificent line from “The Legend of Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

I say that to let you know right up front that there’s a lot of legend in THE RIGHT STUFF. Yes, it’s based on historical events involving real people but the filmmakers didn’t let them get in the way of telling a good story. Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) didn’t fly the X-1 on a whim as the movie would lead you to to believe but damn if it doesn’t make for a great scene. Especially when he breaks a couple of ribs chasing his wife Glennis (Barbara Hershey) on horseback in the desert surrounding the future Edwards Air Force Base and falls off his horse and still gets in the X-1 the next day to break the sound barrier.

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And it’s fun to see the friendly rivalry between Yeager and Scott Crossfield as they break each others speed records repeatedly. This is while hungry young pilots such as Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Dennis Quaid) Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward) and Donald “Deke” Slayton (Scott Paulin) are pouring into the base, looking to make their mark and prove they have “The Right Stuff.” Okay, maybe some of this is made up but if you want the facts, go look them up for yourself. We got these things called libraries. You might have heard of them. Make use of them.

But exactly what IS “The Right Stuff”? nobody ever says. It’s one of those grand and glorious Man Things That Cannot Be Given A Name. Chuck Yeager doubtless has it. In fact, he may have it more than anybody else even though he is deemed not worthy to be invited to join the space program. In one of the movie’s best scenes Gus Grissom is being ridiculed by the media and fellow pilots for his insistence that the explosive bolts on the hatch of his capsule exploded on their own during splashdown. The common consensus is that he panicked. But Yeager comes to Grissom’s defense;” You think a monkey knows he’s sittin’ on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys they know that, see? 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.” Now, maybe Chuck Yeager said that or maybe he didn’t. But it matters in the context of the movie and the story that the movie is telling and that’s enough.

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The bulk of the movie is taken up with the 1960s Space Race, accelerated by the Russians launching Sputnik in 1957. NASA is tasked with putting an American in space and that initiates a near hysterical search for astronauts. Ironically, pilots like Yeager are excluded because he doesn’t “fit the profile” but after extraordinary grueling physical and mental tests, The Mercury Seven astronauts are chosen; Cooper, Grissom and Slayton along with John Glenn (Ed Harris) Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) Walter “Wally” Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Charles Frank (Scott Carpenter). But even though they are trained to be pilots, the engineers of the project (and it’s very clear that the majority of these engineers used to work for the Third Reich in WWII) see them as nothing more than passengers. You add to this is extensive publicity machine surrounding these proceedings and you’ve a situation as ripe for comedy as it is for drama.

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And one of the thing that takes people by surprise about THE RIGHT STUFF when they see it for the first time is that is a very funny movie. In fact, at times, it almost plays like a comedy, especially where Dennis Quaid is concerned. Those of you who have seen the movie know what I mean. But just about everybody gets their chance to be funny, even when they’re not being funny. If you know what I mean. Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum get a lot of laughs out their bit as a pair of recruiters looking for candidates for the fledgling NASA program. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the cast don’t get their funny moments as well.

This movie may have just have the greatest cast of talent on screen since “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” Here we go: Fred Ward. Dennis Quaid. Scott Glenn. Ed Harris. Sam Shepard. Lance Henriksen. Scott Paulin. Barbara Hershey. Veronica Cartwright. Harry Shearer. Jeff Goldblum. Pamela Reed. Charles Frank. Donald Moffat. Scott Wilson. Kathy Baker. Royal Dano. John P. Ryan. William Russ. John Dehner. And Chuck Yeager himself. He shows up as the bartender at Pancho’s, the joint where all the pilots hang out. It’s an utterly extraordinary cast and what’s even more extraordinary is that the script and the director gives them all a chance to shine without detracting from the overall story the movie is telling.

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And the musical score by Bill Conti is absolutely magnificent. It won the Academy Award that year for Best Original Score and rightfully so. A large part of the reason why THE RIGHT STUFF is still so highly regarded is because of that heroically soaring score. The special effects are also worthy of note because they’re practical effects, done with models. I don’t have anything against CGI and fully understand that a lot of my favorite movies of recent years couldn’t be done without them. But practical effects have a weight and realism that can’t be duplicated. When Chuck Yeager is in that X-1 and says that it’s still going up like a bat outta hell, we believe him.

Chances are that most of you reading this have already seen THE RIGHT STUFF and agree with me. But for those you who haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and check it out at your earliest opportunity. THE RIGHT STUFF is one of the finest American movies ever made, period. And it’s a whole lot of fun to watch as well. Enjoy.

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192 Minutes

Rated PG

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Missouri Breaks

1976
MGM

Directed by Arthur Penn
Produced by Elliott Kasner and Robert M. Sherman
Written by Thomas McGuane

I’ve seen most of Jack Nicholson’s movies and I think it’s safe to say that in a goodly number of them he acts…well, nuts. Even when he plays a supposedly sane and normal guy he throws in enough personality quirks and upraised eyebrows that no matter how normal the character is supposed to be he still seems a bit off. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s always that weird look in his eyes that makes watching Jack Nicholson so much fun. Marlon Brando is equally enjoyable to watch as an actor. But when he decides to go completely off the rails as he does in THE MISSOURI BREAKS the results are nothing less that spellbinding. Marlon Brando gives a performance that is at once delightfully hilarious and darkly frightening. If anybody had told me there was a movie where Jack Nicholson plays the most normal and balanced character I’d have bet money against it. But it’s true. In THE MISSOURI BREAKS Jack Nicholson plays a cattle rustler and horse thief who is probably the most honest and honorable character in the movie.

Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) and his gang of rustlers (Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid, Frederic Forrest and John P. Ryan) are making a pretty good living stealing horses and cattle from David Braxton (John McLiam) an enormously wealthy and powerful landowner. Logan has an ingenious scheme going: he’s actually running a ranch on Braxton’s land that he purchased with money from a train robbery. Pretending to be a legitimate rancher is a nice cover for Logan’s other activities. Among them romancing Braxton’s outspoken, independently minded daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd). Things start to go sour when Braxton hires Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) a regulator whose manhunting skills are undisputed and whose talent for killing is legendary. What isn’t in dispute is his sanity. Clayton’s as mad as a Kansas City pimp.

Insane though he may be, Clayton lives up to his fearsome reputation by ruthlessly hunting down and killing Logan’s gang one by one, ambushing them when they least expect it. Even Braxton isn’t safe when it becomes apparent that he can’t put the genie back in the bottle, as Clayton seems to have designs on Braxton himself. Logan is soon faced with a difficult choice: he’s grown to really enjoy working on the ranch and has even flirted with the idea of giving up his trade and settling down with Jane. But Clayton makes it plain that he’s not going to satisfied until all the thieves are dead and that includes Logan.

While I was watching THE MISSOURI BREAKS I was reminded of another classic film that starred two other icons of American film: Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, the movie “Heat”. And like that movie, Brando and Nicholson don’t share a lot of screen time together. So don’t be disappointed that you don’t get a chance to see them really matching acting chops. Instead just sit back and watch Marlon Brando go totally nuts with his role as Clayton. There’s a terrific scene where he snatches a corpse out of a casket to make a philosophical point about showing mercy to thieves. He shows up in every scene wearing a different bizarre outfit. In one scene he’s garbed as a pre-Civil War southern gentleman. In another he wears a dress, apron and a bonnet while burning down a cabin to flush out of the rustlers. He speaks in weird dialects and unusual speech patterns that leave everybody around him utterly baffled as to what the hell he’s talking about.

In comparison, Jack Nicholson is the very model of restrained acting. Next to Brando he’s almost sedate. He’s got a lot of good scenes with Harry Dean Stanton where they simply sit and talk about their lives before they became thieves and how they got to where they are now. He also has good chemistry with Kathleen Lloyd, who most people will recognize from her reoccurring role on “Magnum P.I.” as Assistant District Attorney Carol Baldwin. She’s mostly a television actress and I get the feeling from the reading I did before writing this review that THE MISSOURI BREAKS was her shot at feature films. A shot that didn’t hit the mark. I find her a wonderfully talented actress.  Part of that may be her delightfully uncanny resemblance to Sarah Silverman in this movie.  If you guys know me then you know how I feel about Sarah Silverman so ’nuff said. Randy Quaid plays the big, loveable dumb lug he’s played in numerous other movies while Frederick Forrest has one of the most undignified death scenes I’ve ever seen in a Western movie.

This isn’t your traditional western where men face each other down in the middle of Main Street at high noon. In fact, the number of men who are killed due to sneaky tactics is alarmingly high. Nobody’s interested in having a fair gunfight. They’re more interested in staying alive and if that means bushwhacking a man by shooting him in the back, well, nobody loses much sleep over it. Men are hanged almost as a regular Sunday afternoon activity complete with beer and dancing.

You’re not going to see a lot of traditional stuff you see in other westerns but you will see some terrific acting from Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, who totally walks off with the movie. Harry Dean Stanton provides reliable backup, as always and the rest of the cast are no slouches either. THE MISSOURI BREAKS is far from a conventional western and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a good way to spend two hours. Enjoy with my blessings.

126 minutes
Rated PG