The Right Stuff ★★½

Exceedingly strange, off-putting narrative of the early U.S. space program, focusing on the Mercury 7 astronauts and the absent idol Chuck Yeager, a juxtaposition that makes more sense in Tom Wolfe's rambling, stream-of-consciousness book... as does the confused tone, volleying between reverent wonder and flippant tongue-in-cheek lampoon, which makes it impossible to enjoy the serious moments or the humorous ones, because you're never quite sure whether the film means to impress you or is mocking everything you're seeing. Some seem to appreciate this but as a space nerd, I just don't get it. A great example is the portrayal of John Glenn, presented by a young and wide-eyed Ed Harris; Wolfe's book acknowledges that Glenn was both a man with genuine character and heroism and one who was sometimes gently ribbed by his peers for his golly-gee-whiz Americanism. Director Kaufman seems to want us both to share in Glenn's triumphs and to look upon his boy-scout attitude with derision; his orbit is the most lyrical part of Wolfe's prose and of this film, and it's preceded in both cases by a remarkable incident in which Glenn insists that it's entirely the decision of his wife (disability advocate and speech-impediment sufferer Annie Glenn, here played quite impeccably by Mary Jo Deschanel; what haunting eyes in that family!) whether she wants to invite then-VP Lyndon Johnson and the members of the press into the house. It's a powerful moment of compassionate love and privacy that says so much about the Glenns; but Kaufman stages it as if it's a big piece of comic relief, and then cuts to a fifteen-miles-broad caricature of Johnson swearing up a storm in his limo. This pattern repeats throughout the film: a moment of etheral beauty and grace in which you remember why we care so much about NASA in the first place will play out, followed immediately by a scene of Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum mumbling, or men jerking off and humming in bathroom stalls, or Dennis Quaid mugging as disgraced astronaut, well-known clown and UFO conspiracy wackjob Gordon Cooper. I'm not saying we can't joke around about our space follies -- I had the time of my life reading Mary Roach's irreverent Packing for Mars recently -- but it riles me up when somebody can't even do the work of deciding what movie they're making, and expects us to spend three hours watching them fail to figure it out. Sam Shepard's scenes as Yeager are terrific, also depicting a strong but unorthodox marriage compellingly with Barbara Hershey as Glennis, but they seem to belong in a different feature entirely.

I have to admit, though: the closing implication -- which may or may not be inherited from Wolfe, I can't recall -- that the entire film hinges on the emptily-grinning Cooper's long-awaited opportunity to get shot up into orbit, followed immediately by the credits rolling, is the one gag that really landed with me. I just wish I felt like we didn't bungle our one opportunity for an intelligent, big-budget interpretation of these events. Outstanding special effects, at any rate.

[Edit: I forgot-- can someone explain to me what on earth the Australia scenes were going for?!]

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