Tucked away among the special features included on the impressive new two-DVD version of Philip Kaufman's fleet-footed epic The Right Stuff is the 1998 PBS documentary John Glenn: American Hero, a bland tribute that coincided with the 77-year-old's quest to become the oldest person ever to fly in space. Before ticking off his accomplishments as a fighter pilot, a politician, and the first American to orbit the Earth, the narrator wonders if Glenn's latest mission is a "sentimental voyage, or the next step toward space in the 21st century." But after watching The Right Stuff, with its brilliantly subversive and ironic take on hero manufacture, such an either/or question seems profoundly disingenuous, given that sentimentality ignites the space program just as surely as rocket fuel. Preserving the irreverent tone of Tom Wolfe's juicy, sprawling novel The Right Stuff, the cinematic adaptation concedes that Glenn and the other Mercury 7 astronauts were heroes, just not the "walking apple pies" (as critic Pauline Kael put it) trumpeted by press-ops or Henry Luce's exclusive Life magazine portraits. After Sputnik, NASA needed heroes to keep pace with the Russian space program, no matter that the chosen seven "Spam in a can" astronauts had never actually done anything to earn the hero label; only later did they justify their early plaudits. Kaufman loves all these men, but his heart clearly lies with Chuck Yeager, the plainspoken Air Force pilot who broke the sound barrier without fanfare, then proceeded to stretch the envelope as far as it could go. The film's first 20 minutes stand in sharp relief to the circus that follows, with Sam Shepard playing the laconic Yeager as a Western hero, quietly patrolling his territory on horseback and risking his neck for military pay ($283 per month), plus a steak with all the trimmings. As he and his fellow test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base run suicide missions in squalor and silence–at one point, the death toll reaches 62 men in 32 weeks–NASA unveils the lucky Mercury men at a press conference, and Life offers them a three-year deal worth $500,000. Where they might not have already been aware of their status as propaganda tools, the monkey-vs.-man race to be the first American in space provides a humiliating reality check. Though the chimp won that battle, the original astronauts prove a braver and savvier group than expected, and Kaufman pays his respect by giving their individual missions their own unique tension and visual splendor. Within this rambunctious gallery of characters, Kaufman discovers moments of extraordinary nobility, large and small, from Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn) grinding out a long delay on the first manned flight to Glenn (an uncanny Ed Harris) fiercely protecting his wife from a publicity-seeking LBJ and the network cameras. Even the still-controversial issue of whether Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) blew his emergency hatch is handled with delicacy and insight, leading to a crushing scene after the fact, when Grissom and his wife are shamed out of any garden ceremonies. Many reasons are given for The Right Stuff's 1983 flop at the box office, including a slow release schedule, a prohibitive 193-minute run time, and misconstrued ties to Glenn's failed presidential campaign. But more likely, its artistic successes are related to its commercial failure: Audiences weren't ready for a revisionist history lesson, especially about a space program bankrolled by a well-kept image of unsullied glory. Though the special features are more promotional than illuminating (why continue to sell a film that people have already bought?), the DVD makes a good case for The Right Stuff as one of the decade's richest achievements, a rare studio behemoth that's equally adept at intimacy and grandeur.
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