The Right Stuff: Special Edition

Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Scott Paulin, Lance Henriksen, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Levon Helm, Donald Moffat, Mary Jo Deschanel, Jeff Goldblum, Harry Shearer. Directed by Philip Kaufman. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1. Two discs. 193 minutes. 1983. Warner Bros. 24499. PG. $21.99.

Picture ***
Sound ***
Film ***

One of the four documentaries accompanying The Right Stuff includes a discussion of why director Philip Kaufman's epic about the Mercury astronauts wasn't the big hit everyone expected it to be. Kaufman's theory is that the studio messed things up with a release schedule that kept it out of most theaters for three months after its debut on just seven screens. Tom Wolfe, on whose best-selling book the film was based, theorizes that John Glenn's impending presidential campaign—and the associations made between it and the movie by the media—gave too many folks the idea that Stuff was a pro-Glenn, big-screen political ad.

An issue left mostly untouched by those interviewed is the movie's length: three hours and 13 minutes. For some, that's simply too long. But this 1983 story of America's test pilots and astronauts is a good yarn spun by an acclaimed director with breathtaking cinematography, extraordinary visual and audio effects, and exceptional acting.

Sam Shepard is especially strong as legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager. The first third of the film revolves around Yeager's exploits in the sky (he was the first to break the sound barrier), and the hard-drinking test pilots who lived—and died—for the chance to "push the outside of the envelope."

When the film shifts its focus to the late 1950s and early '60s and the pilots chosen as America's first team of astronauts, Ed Harris' beaming portrayal of squeaky-clean, gung-ho John Glenn takes over, and Shepard's strong, silent Yeager slips into the background. Perhaps this was another reason The Right Stuff, while not an outright bomb, and despite tons of positive press from adoring critics, didn't soar at the box office—this two-movies-in-one approach involved too much time and too much information for audiences.

If you're a fan of this minor classic, take heart: Warner Bros. has done a pretty good job of repackaging the film. Its original release on DVD was devoid of any notable extras, where-as this two-disc Special Edition has a few definitely worth watching. The most interesting is probably The Real Men with The Right Stuff, featuring interviews with some of the surviving Mercury astronauts, some of whom take minor exception to the liberties director-screenwriter Kaufman took with their story. What's most fascinating is the opportunity to compare the real guys with the actors who portray them.

A fawning PBS documentary about Glenn is also included, as is Realizing The Right Stuff, an entertaining look at the making of the film that features interviews with Kaufman, producers, actors, Yeager, and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Natural ).

Deschanel's superb lighting and beautifully composed frames, along with the extraordinary special effects (created with Gary Gutierrez), give the film a sumptuous visual texture. The effects, created before the age of CGI, hold up well. Take a look at the flight scenes, created mainly with shots of miniatures: they're stunningly realistic. The special effects are discussed in detail in T-20 Years and Counting, yet another absorbing documentary included on disc 2, as well as in the scene-specific commentary tracks featuring the filmmakers.

It's too bad Warners didn't include a restoration of the print in this reissue. At times, most noticeably in some of the flight scenes, wear and tear are evident in the print used for this transfer. They're typically minor distractions, though I imagine that if you view this with a projector, they might be more than minor.

The Right Stuff garnered Oscars for best sound, sound effects, and musical score: all are effectively, vibrantly reproduced on this new digital transfer. The roar of the rockets is sure to give your sub a good workout.

Fans of The Right Stuff should toss the old DVD version and get this Special Edition, with all its extras. If you always meant to see the movie but never quite got around to it, this story of what were arguably America's last heroes is well worth a rental fee—and three-plus hours of your time.—MM