Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, Lance Henriksen, Donald Moffat
Written by: Philip Kaufman, based on the book by Tom Wolfe
Directed by: Philip Kaufman
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 193
Date: 10/21/1983

The Right Stuff (1983)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Space Between

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It was the film that had everything going for it. It was three hours long, featured an outstanding cast of up-and-coming stars, great special effects, a great script, jaw-dropping cinematography, chest-thumping American patriotism, and just a little subversiveness thrown in to keep the cynics happy. (It beautifully mixes playfulness and heroism.) It earned eight Oscar nominations and took four awards home. But somehow Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff was a bitter, crippling flop, earning only about $21 million against its approximate $27 million budget.

Perhaps in the year of Return of the Jedi (which made more money in its opening weekend alone) moviegoers were still more interested in fantasy than in the reality of American astronauts risking their lives for knowledge.

Fortunately, history tends to right wrongs, and The Right Stuff has been released on a wonderful 2-DVD set. After twenty years, the film still sucks you in with its professional, consummate storytelling, warm humor and gut-wrenching drama. In fact, once loaded into the DVD player, it's difficult to stop watching -- in spite of the film's daunting 190-minute length. Along with Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America it's the last great American epic -- the kind of film that couldn't be made today.

Frankly, it has always confused me that Sam Shepard plays Chuck Yeager, Scott Glenn plays Alan Shepard and Ed Harris plays John Glenn (too many similar names). Kaufman adapted the famous book by Tom Wolfe, and cleverly used San Francisco to double for most of the film's locations.

In 2013, Warner Home Video released a great-looking 30th anniversary Blu-ray book edition. Most of the extras seem to be about the same as the DVD, including two "select scenes" commentary tracks by the cast and crew, three short documentaries, deleted scenes, a 1998 PBS documentary on Yeager, and a trailer. There's a new "space timeline," that goes up to 2012. The packaging includes a nifty full-color book, plus a letter from director Kaufman.

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