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Right Stuff, The (Blu-ray Review)

4 Dec, 2013 By: John Latchem

$27.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG’ for some language including sexual references, thematic elements, disaster images and brief partial nudity.
Stars Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Scott Paulin, Charles Frank, Lance Henriksen, Donald Moffat, Levon Helm, Mary Jo Deschanel, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer.

The common perception about The Right Stuff is that it depicts the story of the Mercury Program — the first flights to take Americans into space. However, as with the 1979 Tom Wolfe novel upon which it is based, the 1983 film is as much about a pilot who wasn’t a part of the space program. That would be Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), introduced early on during his historic attempt to break the sound barrier in 1947, then offered up as a contrast to an astronaut group presented in practically satirical strokes.

The reason Yeager wasn’t recruited for that initial batch of space jockeys? He didn’t have a college degree, and NASA was as much interested in its public relations image as it was in passing the Russians in space technology.

This creates the key dynamic of a film that explores just what it takes to be a test pilot. The astronauts get all the glory, but the work by Yeager and his colleagues isn’t any less dangerous. One of the central conceits that binds the story is that these pilots aren’t that different from the cowboys of old. One of the film’s charms is the way it mocks the way people tend to make heroes out of public figures, via a rabid press pursuing a single-minded narrative (accompanied by a strange hissing sound for good measure).

Also helping to set the mood is Bill Conti’s Oscar-winning music, which offers just the right amount of heroism and drama, with a fair degree of homage to Gustav Holst’s The Planets suite.

Director Philip Kaufman’s masterpiece remains one of the two quintessential films about the space program (Apollo 13 being the other), so this Blu-ray treatment was long overdue.

The assembled cast of relative unknowns at the time, featuring the likes of Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Lance Henriksen and Jeff Goldblum, would play like a dream team today (and it’s a bit remarkable to hear one of the producers say it was rather easy to assemble the cast based on matching the appearance to the astronauts). Animation fans will delight in seeing longtime “Simpsons” voiceover specialist Harry Shearer as one of the NASA recruiters. Plus, keep an eye out for a brief appearance by Scott Wilson, best known today as Hershel from “The Walking Dead.”

The Oscar-nominated cinematography, beautifully upgraded to HD, was by Caleb Deschanel, whose wife, Mary Jo, offers a standout performances as Annie Glenn. Further collaborations between the two include their daughters, actresses Emily and Zooey (of “Bones” and “New Girl,” respectively).

The Blu-ray essentially re-creates the special-edition DVD from 2003, without adding any new extras. That’s fine, as the 20th anniversary materials that carried over are rather excellent, including documentaries about the making of the film and interviews with some of the real-life pilots depicted.

Also included are the scene-specific cast and crew commentaries, although as with the DVD these aren’t offered with the movie, but as clips on the bonus disc. There’s also about 15 minutes of deleted scenes.

The best extra is probably the two-hour PBS biography of John Glenn, half devoted to profiling his life and the other half documenting his space shuttle flight in 1998.

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