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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/2/04

The Right Stuff
Special Edition - 1983 (2003) - Warner Bros.

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Right Stuff: Special Edition Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/C+

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film
193 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, Digipack packaging with slipcase, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 101:43, at the start of chapter 25), cast and crew bios, awards listing, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (46 chapters), languages: English and French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Two - Special Features
NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), selected scene audio commentary (with General Chuck Yeager, actors Dennis Quaid, Barbara Hershey, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer, Fred Ward, Ed Harris, David Clennon, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed and Donald Moffat, screenwriter/director Philip Kaufman, director of photography Caleb Deschanel, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, composer Bill Conti and visual effects supervisor Gary Guttierez), 3 documentaries (Realizing The Right Stuff, T-20 Years and Counting and The Real Men with The Right Stuff), 13 additional scenes, interactive Timeline to Space, John Glenn: American Hero documentary, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 2.0 Surround)

Longtime readers of this site will be aware that we at The Bits have a bit of a soft spot when it comes to our space program. Why that is, I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps we all secretly wanted to be astronauts when we were growing up. I know I did, at least until I realized that a C average in math wasn't exactly going to impress anybody at NASA. Despite that admitted bias, you'll have to trust me when I say that The Right Stuff, the spectacular film based on the original Mercury 7 astronauts, is bar none one of the best films of the 1980's, whether you're a far-out space nut like us or not.

Like many great films, Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff failed to make much impression on audiences during its original release. There are any number of reasons to explain why so few people saw The Right Stuff theatrically. First of all, it was a movie without any recognizable, bankable stars. At least, that was the case at the time. Watching it today, The Right Stuff is like an audition reel of America's most dependable actors. The astronauts themselves are brought to vivid life by such stars as Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn and Fred Ward. The film depicts them not as the flawless, all-American heroes immortalized on the covers of Life magazine, but as specific and only too human men thrust into a spotlight many of their peers felt they did not deserve. There is real camaraderie between these men but there is also tension and rivalry. As the astronauts train, you feel the competition between them to be the first, fastest and longest in space. And the further into the system they get, you feel the bond that grows between them as they realize their contributions to the space program are being consistently undervalued by the scientists and engineers at NASA.

Another reason for the film's initial reaction is its quirky tone and sense of humor, elements that were very much brought over from Tom Wolfe's excellent book. People expecting a rah-rah portrayal of American heroes were surprised by the film's comedic elements and seemingly ambivalent view of what the Mercury 7 program accomplished. The comedy is most apparent in scenes involving Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer as a Mutt and Jeff pair of NASA recruiters. But there is humor throughout the film, during the training sessions, in the winking performances of Quaid as hotshot Gordon Cooper and Harris' gee-whiz John Glenn, and especially in the borderline cartoonish Lyndon Johnson personified by Donald Moffat. As for that ambivalence, the exploits of the Mercury 7 are contrasted throughout the film with the unsung envelope pushing of test pilot Chuck Yeager (a stoically brilliant performance by playwright Sam Shepard). While the astronauts were getting all the glory, Yeager continually tried to outdo himself in the realm between Earth and space. Chuck Yeager is the soul of this film and Shepard's eyes speak volumes, whether he's watching the astronauts give a press conference on TV or seeing a glimpse of what lies just on the other side of Earth's atmosphere.

Of course, one of the biggest reasons for the film's commercial failure was simply one of timing. The release of The Right Stuff coincided with John Glenn's presidential bid in 1984 and audiences didn't feel it was necessary to see a three-hour propaganda film for the Democratic hopeful. But The Right Stuff isn't simply The John Glenn Story. It's a true ensemble film, focusing equally on the astronauts, the test pilots as typified by Yeager, and the wives who had no choice but to sit and wait while their husbands risked their lives for goals that, to them, seemed murky at best. Kaufman handles all of these elements astonishingly well. The Right Stuff is one of those rare films that manages to be both ironic and sincere, simultaneously critical and inspirational. The fact that Kaufman acknowledges the premature idolatry of the Mercury 7 by both NASA and a willing-to-play-along media does nothing to take away from the exhilaration of their actual accomplishments when they do get into space. Philip Kaufman has made other great films since this one, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but this may well turn out to be his masterpiece. The Right Stuff captures a specific time and place unlike any other film of its kind. It's a thrilling piece of filmmaking that deserves to be a part of every DVD collection.

As great as this film is, Warner's special edition is disappointingly lackluster. Sure, from a technical point of view, it's basically beyond reproach. Caleb Deschanel's wonderful cinematography is expertly captured in this 16x9 enhanced transfer, with the few instances of chroma noise from the original release basically ironed out. The sound mix is as good as you could hope. It's perhaps not as fully rounded as that found on Universal's Apollo 13 disc, but that film, of course, came out over a decade later.

Where Warner dropped the ball on this release is with the extra features. Instead of a full-length commentary, we get a pair of selected scene commentaries on Disc Two. One is given over to the crew, including Kaufman, Deschanel, and others. The other is reserved for the cast. That's all well and good, but the selected scenes are less than half an hour in length and the same for each one. Between the two of them, there are over a dozen people participating in these commentaries. Something tells me they could have easily kept going for the duration of the film's 193 minutes on Disc One.

The new "making-of" featurettes are like pitches for a full-length documentary. After watching them, I expected to be able to turn to the disc's producers and be able to say, "That's a great start. I can't wait to see the whole thing. Keep going with it." These documentaries should have been much more in-depth than they turned out. I'd have loved to see more with Tom Wolfe and the real-life astronauts (including Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra and Yeager himself). The additional scenes are in fairly bad shape, which is nobody's fault, but are also presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, which is somebody's fault. It also would have been nice to have a commentary from Kaufman here, explaining when and why the scenes were cut. Disc Two also features the movie's trailer and an interactive Timeline to Space, a feature already done better on the fourth disc of HBO's From the Earth to the Moon.

The final remaining extra is the PBS documentary John Glenn: American Hero. This isn't bad, as it spends a great deal of time on Glenn's recent return to space on the shuttle. However, the inclusion of this documentary kind of undercuts the point of the movie itself. John Glenn's an interesting person, no doubt about that. But he is not the focal point of The Right Stuff. I would have actually liked to see this documentary condensed so that it focuses primarily on his return visit and perhaps a bit on his political career. Then, let's see docs of equal length on the rest of the guys and their lives before and after the Mercury program.

The Right Stuff is one of my favorite films of all time and I'm more than happy to have a first-class presentation of it on DVD. When Warner announced that they were preparing a special edition of the film, we were thrilled. It suggested that the studio knew this was one of the best films in their vaults, despite the fact that it never really caught fire at the box office. Unfortunately, the resulting product indicates that they still have lingering doubts about its worth. If this new release gets more people to see this brilliant film, then it's done at least part of its job. But for those of us who have loved it from the beginning, and have been waiting years for a truly special edition, Warner's re-release is a major disappointment.

Adam Jahnke

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