Based on Tom Wolfe's novel of the same name, The Right Stuff is a spectacular and thrilling epic that chronicles the fledgling years of the American space programme, from breaking the sound barrier to putting the first man into orbit. Rather than focusing on the technological advances that made this possible, writer-director Philip Kaufman pays tribute to the daring and heroic air-force test-pilots, most notably Chuck Yeager, John Glenn and "Gordo" Cooper , whose competitive desire to be the fastest and the highest drives them to keep "pushing the outside of the envelope". Despite its grand historical scale, the movie is grounded in the emotional highs and lows of these men and their long-suffering wives, delicately balancing their personal achievements and failures with the invasive media frenzy surrounding NASA's attempts to better the rival Soviet space effort.
The Right Stuff has a coherence and pace that belies its sprawling plot, wide array of main characters and a running time of over three hours. This is thanks to an exciting script, a superb cast, Caleb Deschanel's stunning cinematography and--given the dramatic subject matter--a surprisingly humorous edge. Parts of the gruelling astronaut selection process make complete monkeys of the pilots, NASA's unsuccessful first attempts to launch a rocket are shown in all their explosive glory, and Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer steal the show as two oddball recruitment officials.
On the DVD: The Right Stuff Special Edition comes with a sizeable, if somewhat superficial, second disc of extra features. There are two separate commentary tracks pieced together from a selection of soundbites--one from the cast (including an introduction from technical advisor Yeager) and the other from the production team. Both are played out over an identical, 25-minute sequence of scenes from the film, but only refer occasionally to the action on screen and yield little insight into the film's production.
There are also four separate documentaries. The largest of these is John Glenn: American Hero, a 90-minute PBS special charting the legendary astronaut's life and including some great documentary footage of his appearance on Name That Tune (recreated in the film). Realising the Right Stuff (21 mins) and T-20 Years and Counting (10 mins) are both standard selections of cast and crew interviews. The Real Men with the Right Stuff (15 mins) features documentary footage and interviews with the surviving members of the Mercury team (Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter and Walter Schirra). Deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer and an "Interactive Timeline to Space" make up the remainder. --Paul Philpott