The story of unheralded supersonic test pilot Chuck Yeager and his bid to be an astronaut.
Philip Kaufman has had a strange career, encompassing revisionist Westerns (The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid), sci-fi horror (Invasion Of The Body Snatchers), potboiler thrillers (Rising Sun) and a few stabs at high-brow Euro-erotica (Henry And June, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Quills).
It should come as no surprise, then, that his best, and certainly best-loved, film - The Right Stuff - seems to lack a clear directorial voice.
The story of unheralded supersonic test pilot Chuck Yeager could have been condensed into a pre-credit sequence, yet Kaufman spends nearly 40 minutes lovingly photographing Sam Shepard. When the main story of the Mercury Space Programme kicks in, the director seems unsure if he's celebrating the astronauts as new pioneers, or condemning them as willing dupes of a government propaganda machine.
This moral ambiguity is faithful to the book and only adds to the film's tension, which has the audience holding it's breath on more than one occasion. We are given a variety of viewpoints to sympathise with and instead of disappating the attention, you actually find yourself rooting for everyone.
And still the film holds together admirably as a piece of fact-based entertainment. Maybe it's the inherent drama of the missions themselves, maybe it's Caleb Deschanel's glorious photography (evoking John Fordís Technicolor Westerns), Bill Conti's rousing, Oscar-winning score, or simply the excellent selection of crew-cut hairdos. The Right Stuff is occasionally infuriating, but it's also consistently compelling.
Consistently compelling, capturing all the ambiguity and tension of the book.
Reviewed by Rob Fraser