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Right Stuff (Two-Disc Special Edition), The
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
"There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, 750 miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier."
So begins The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman's ambitious, epic look at test pilots, Mercury astronauts, a raging media, a paranoid government, and monkeys. It's a saga of heroes and heroes' wives. It's a tale about extraordinary vision and startling naiveté. It's a story steeped in history and semi-accurate biographical detail, and yet it's painted broadly with segments of odd slapstick and chest-puffing myth-manufacturing. It's at once a thrillingly episodic look at one of the most remarkable periods in our history and a big ol' messy chaos of loosely interlocked scenes of heroism. But, wow, is The Right Stuff eminently entertaining.
The film begins sparely, soaring down from the sky to focus on the chiseled features of the monolithic character that will be its centerpiece: Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), man of few words but great action. Test-pilot Yeager's story might seem an unlikely place to begin a historical account of America's space program, but we soon see that a quiet, almost internal study of Yeager's character is essential to the structure of The Right Stuff. Through the long scenes of perilous flight and test-pilot competitiveness, and through the film's careful attention to time and place, we're prepared for the tone and character of what's to come—a larger-than-life study of equally larger-than-life heroism among mere mortals.
After a leisurely start marked by occasional bursts of terrific action and energy, we're carefully introduced to the remaining players until the movie is full to brimming with personalities. There's John Glenn (Ed Harris), eager hotshot Dudley-Do-Right who plays strictly by the book. There's Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward), flyboy companions always ready with a randy joke and a jab. There's Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), military flyer with a sly sense of humor and a take-no-shit attitude. And then there's the other pilots and astronauts and all their wives, and there's the government boys (Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, both looking humorously young) and Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffat)—and by this time the movie is becoming a huge lumbering behemoth just ready to crash and burn. The film is so crammed with characters and subplots that many necessarily get the short shrift. But somehow, The Right Stuff manages to retain an aura of greatness, thanks to its fearless sense of epic scope and also its willingness to have fun.
The Right Stuff uses an episodic approach to tell its twin stories of test pilots and Mercury astronauts, and even though it can be downright moving and mythical at times, it has plenty of time for goofiness and humor verging on self-parody. Sometimes its characters are vaudeville caricatures, and other times they're deeply human and flawed. It's a strange mix that adds up to something oddly affecting, as if you're getting the full spectrum of human experience and emotion, all thrown at you over a 3-hour span. So even if The Right Stuff is less than the sum of its parts, the film nevertheless manages to reach into your soul and stir up some patriotism—cuz goddamn if anywhere else but America could you find a movie as big-balled and gaudy and fun as this one.
As a side note, there was a strange political stigma attached to The Right Stuff when it premiered in 1983, causing the film to do something of a bellyflop at the box office. John Glenn was mounting a presidential campaign, and some saw the film's rah-rah characterization of Glenn a bit too politically swayed for their tastes. In retrospect, you can definitely smell the reek of propaganda between some of this film's frames. But the entertainment surrounding these moments outweighs such concerns.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Warner presents The Right Stuff in a fairly respectable anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. As long as you remember that this is a 20-year-old film and lower your expectations accordingly, you'll be pleased. Detail is solid, reaching into backgrounds. Close-up detail fares best, but wider shots tend toward softness. Colors seem accurate—not exactly vivid but warm and solid. Black levels are deep—perhaps too deep.
Which leads me to the bad news: The transfer appears somewhat dark. Cinematographer Deschanel has a particular taste for high-contrast backlighting. Particularly in these scenes, when foreground characters are silhouetted against expansive skies, facial features and skin tones can get lost in shadow (although shadow detail is acceptable). Such high-contrast shots can be a breeding ground for edge-enhancements halos, but some good news is that I noticed very little such artifacting. Hard dark lines against bright backgrounds were only minimally haloed.
In the movie's bright scenes (which seem to be few and far between), color pops and detail abounds. But you'll notice a general dirtiness to the print in the form of blotches, flecks, and other flaws. In the end, the transfer of the print seems adequate, but there's no getting around the subpar quality of the print used.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc includes a pleasing Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix. I gather that this is the same mix that the original DVD featured. Although the soundtrack has suffered some loss in fidelity—for example, some of the higher-end sounds like jet screeches come across a bit tinnily and hollow—the majority of dialog and sound effects fare superbly across the front soundstage. The jet sound effects are impressive for their age. The low-end presence has benefited in particular from this remix. And the surround channels get a nice workout with such ambient effects as jet engines and crowd noise. The score is full and crisp.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The Right Stuff has been released on DVD before, but that was a nearly barebones edition with text-based production notes and a trailer. This new special edition is quite an impressive set, offering real value with extras that enhance the experience of the film.
The first disc contains only a few items—namely, a strangely uninformative Cast and Crew section that merely lists the names of the principal characters and actors, and a listing of Awards (specifically, the Academy Awards) the film received.
Having read the specs of this release, I was hoping to find full commentaries over the film, but no, the advertised commentaries are relegated to the second disc, over just a few specific scenes.
The first supplements on the second disc are two scene-specific audio commentaries that run over the same edited-together 25 minutes of film. The name of this feature is a mouthful: The Journey and the Mission Audio Commentary with Selected Scenes. The first commentary is with members of The Cast—General Chuck Yeager (who has a lot of praise for the rest of the cast), Dennis Quaid (who talks at length about working with Fred Ward and the rest of the cast), Barbara Hershey (who says a few words about actual test-pilot wives), Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer (who laugh about their vaudevillian Mutt & Jeff act), Fred Ward (who appreciates Dennis's "playful quality"), Ed Harris (who fills in some background on the astronaut's medical tests, the film's groundbreaking effects, and John Glenn's actual orbit), David Clennon (who talks about the comedy troupe that played the media brigade), Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, and Donald Moffat. All cast members were recorded individually.
The second commentary, over the same grouping of scenes, is with The Filmmakers—cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, co-producer Robert Chartoff, composer Bill Conti, director Philip Kaufman, visual effects supervisor Gary Gutierrez, and co-producer Irwin Winkler. One particular discussion of interest in this commentary is about the question "What is heroism?" They talk about how these astronauts were labeled heroes before they did anything, and the irony is that they came to fulfill the role. The editing of this commentary, like the first one, is a bit haphazard, and seems too bloated with participants. The comments seem more like sound bytes than solid commentary thoughts.
Next up is a section entitled Documentaries that contains three featurettes (which you can watch individually or through a Play All option). All three pieces are narrated by Levon Helm, the same narrator featured at the start of the feature film. These featurettes provide a relatively thorough look at the making of the film.
The first is entitled Realizing the Right Stuff, a 20-minute piece that features talking-head interviews with cast members Quaid, Harris, Ward, Reed, Cartwright, Goldblum, Shearer, Moffat, Hershey, and Clennon, as well as key behind-the-scenes personalities Chartoff, Winkler, Kaufman, novelist Thomas Wolfe, Deschanel, Yeager. The filmmakers talk about the pre-production process, including adapting the book, but they tend to focus on the casting process. The cast talk about their experiences with one another and with their own characters, with a particular focus on how they formed a tight-knit group that has survived through today.
The second is titled T-20 Years and Counting, an 11-minute piece that focuses on the film's special effects. Therefore, we get a lot of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and photographs involving visual effects supervisor Gutierrez. We also get information about the scoring and the film's gala premiere in Washington DC. Special attention is paid to the fact that John Glenn had embarked on a presidential campaign, and how the film's connection with politics formed a kind of "albatross."
The third is titled The Real Men with the Right Stuff, a 15-minute piece that—you guessed it—gives you a brief but terrifically informative look at the actual men who took part in the United States' first space program. Frankly, this is the piece that most interested me. It contains lots of newsreel footage of test flights (including Yeager's), of the seven astronauts (including the famous press conference), and of actual launches. We hear from novelist Tom Wolfe about his research for the book, as well as first-hand accounts from Yeager, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, and Walter Schirra. Seeing these guys talking about their experiences was wonderful. It all made me wish this piece was far longer.
Additional Scenes provides 11 minutes of about a dozen short, edited-together deleted sequences. We get a Pamela Reed nightmare, an entertaining Shearer-narrated documentary that sounds right out of The Simpsons, more medical testing with the astronauts, a conversation about wooing a nurse between three of our heroes, a couple pieces with Ed Harris, more footage of the astronaut's famous walk, more with the media troupe, a little bit with the annoying Veronica Cartwright, and an interesting little segment with Sam Shepard. The footage is a bit dirty, but it's presented in respectable anamorphic widescreen.
Next is the interesting Interactive Timeline to Space. This is a timechart you can click through, featuring short video clips (narrated by Helm again), photographs, and text pages about significant events in the history of space exploration. There's even mention of the recent Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy.
John Glenn: American Hero is a nearly 90-minute PBS documentary about Glenn, who played a pivotal role both in the film and in events surrounding the film's release. Narrated by Timothy Bottoms, the documentary is a mix of 1998 interviews and older footage. It's a biographical piece that takes us through Glenn's life and focuses much of its length on his 1998 space-shuttle mission. Interesting stuff, indeed, but pretty long-winded.
Finally, you get the film's Theatrical Trailer.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
The Right Stuff is a proudly trumpeting piece of American heroism—you might even say propaganda—that is a goofy and amazing time at the movies. It's huge and towering, just like the rockets atop which seven crazy men strapped themselves and hung on for dear life. This new DVD special edition offers a slightly more impressive image than its predecessor offered, the same audio presentation, and a vast array of new supplements. If you're a lover of extras, an upgrade is a no-brainer.