Philip Kaufman’s exhaustive look at the early days of the American space program remains the director’s most polarizing piece of work. While the scientists and technicians behind Project Mercury — the U.S.’s first attempt at manned spaceflight — are often ridiculed to the point of being cartoonish, the men who were chosen to be the “Mercury Seven” are painted as superheroes, even mythical figures, their pilot (and eventually astronaut) uniforms making them look almost like archangels as they prepare to leave the earth and explore the heavens where they belong. Yes, The Right Stuff is melodrama, but it’s really good melodrama, and that’s hard to come by these days, though a lot of ’80s cinema made it look easy. Of the incredible ensemble cast, Sam Shepard is the standout with his underplayed, quietly intense performance as Chuck Yeager, the pilot who was probably the best in the group but wasn’t chosen to be one of the Seven.
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