The Right Stuff is one of those few examples of the movie being better than the book. That’s because Tom Wolfe’s book has the specific distinction of being told from Tom Wolfe’s point-of-view. This makes for good reading, but you’ve always got that voice. Kaufman’s film has the best of both worlds. He can dip into some Wolfe schtick periodically (there are bits of dialogue lifted directly) but then he can go off and do his own thing. I first saw The Right Stuff when I was nine years old and I’ve never been the same. I’ve since read many books about the Space Race (the best for a introductory & full overview, I feel, is James Schefter’s “The Race: The Complete True Story of How America Beat Russia to the Moon”) and what anyone who knows anything will tell you is that “The Right Stuff” (Wolfe’s or Kaufman’s) is only, say, the first act. The whole driving force of the early space days, the specific goal that had to be reached to “beat the Russians,” was getting a man on the moon. This is downplayed, because to tell that whole story you’d need a ten hour movie. What we have instead is character exploration of the seven original astronauts, plus the one who wasn’t chosen, Chuck Yeager. (Read Kerry Dye’s entertaining review of this aspect of the film.) But what I want to talk about is Bill Conti’s score. At age nine, I had never been exposed to that kind of music before. In my memory, the sound systems at theaters were much better and louder back then (probably not true.) Conti’s score, the epitome of symphonic chutzpah, louder than an Atlas rocket . . .who ever had the guts to blast that many French Horns in a movie score before? This is, I strongly believe, the greatest original film score ever written.
The photo up top? My favorite moment in a movie, period. Yeager, faced with irrelevance, charges upward to see just how far he can push the envelope. Assumed dead a startled ambulance driver points to a figure by the crash site. “Is that a man?” The rejoinder, “You’re damn right it is!”