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DVD Review: The Right Stuff

By Glenn Abel

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photo On paper, it seemed a publicist's dream. Ed Harris, a star of the upcoming film "The Right Stuff," was on the cover of Newsweek under the headline: "Can a Movie Help Make a President?"

The photo played up Harris' remarkable resemblance to John Glenn, the American hero he played in the movie. The former astronaut was running for president in the Democratic primaries of 1983.

"It sent a weird signal," Harris recalls today. " 'Was this some kind of John Glenn campaign movie?' "

When moviegoers of the time were asked why they chose to see "The Big Chill" instead of "The Right Stuff," many indicated they were tired of politics and just wanted to have fun.

The connection between presidential politics and the movie became "a real albatross," remembers Tom Wolfe, who wrote the original story about test pilots and the Mercury space program.

Neither movie nor candidate came out on top. Sen. Glenn never landed in the White House. But Philip Kaufman's rousing movie did find its audience in the video age. Today, "The Right Stuff" is generally regarded as the best, most exciting film made about the U.S. space program.

Warner Home Video has rereleased "The Right Stuff" in a two-disc set that packs the three-hour-and-13-minute film onto a single disc, uninterrupted (unlike the previous Warner DVD).

The Oscar-winning sound -- state of the art in its day -- returns in a hair-raising Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The new audio maximizes the supersonic possibilities without straying into overkill, resulting in an aural experience that's simultaneously bone-jarring and elegant. The subwoofer track maintains an even strain when not required to power up for launches.

The movie comes only in widescreen (retail $26.99). Video is decent but flat in some outdoor scenes. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel's beloved sunrises and sunsets look fine, as do most scenes shot under controlled lighting. All that taxpayer metal looks sharp. There is a fair amount of speckling early on but nothing to detract from the first-rate home video experience.

Bonus materials about the production and the space program fill the second disc, highlighted by KCET's "John Glenn: American Hero," an engrossing 90-minute documentary packed with historic footage both familiar and seldom seen. It includes some chilling video of Glenn inside Friendship 7 as his heat shield begins to fall off -- footage that Harris studied intensely for his part.

Levon Helm, who narrated "The Right Stuff," returns to talk over a trio of new DVD documentaries, his voice having migrated well into Chill Wills territory. Two of the docus look back at the film; the other checks in with the surviving astronauts.

Most of the film's key participants roll out for interviews and reminiscences, including Kaufman, Dennis Quaid, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Fred Ward and producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. There is no feature-length commentary, a good thing at this running time. Actors and filmmakers talk over two reels of selected scenes, some of which are shown twice.

Chartoff says the project came together when the producers laid eyes on the young Harris. "We couldn't believe that John Glenn incarnate was available to us." Quaid, who lights up the film as hot-dog Gordon Cooper, says Harris was nothing like Glenn, but ... "there's this light he has." Quaid prepped for his part by buying a Corvette, taking flying lessons and hanging out with Cooper.

The toughest role to fill was that of Chuck Yeager, the test pilot whose story anchors the film. Playwright Sam Shepard had the Gary Cooper looks that the director wanted, but the producers had doubts about his acting. Kaufman rewrote the script to minimize Shepard's dialogue and to maximize his physical presence. The actor received an Oscar nomination.

Test pilot Yeager was on hand to ensure that the filmmakers got it right (though they "took a lot of liberties" with the NASA story line, he says). "It was like having John Wayne on the set," Quaid says. Hershey, who befriended Yeager while playing the pilot's wife, says "The Right Stuff" was Yeager's "parade -- he never got one."

Director Kaufman says the story of the wives "attracted me almost as much as the stories of the astronauts." Hershey talks about the hardships of shooting in the heavy winds on location at Edwards Air Force Base. Pamela Reed appears in a nightmarish outtake that's among a handful of (quite good) deleted scenes on the DVD.

Another outtake intercuts shots of space chimps with President Johnson and rocket scientist Werner Von Braun in a demonstration of the film's rowdy humor and sharp satire.

An "interactive" space program timeline stretching from the 1950s to the latest shuttle disaster doesn't amount to much. A trailer from 1983 suggests that Warners wasn't entirely in tune with the film, which was produced by the Ladd Co.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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