This is a tale of test pilots, 'pushing the envelope', proving the sound barrier couldn't constrain mankind's reach for space. Leading the way is plain-speaking Chuck Yeager (portrayed by Sam Shepard with Gary Cooper-like charm), a Beeman's gum-chewing cowboy with a passion for his feisty wife (the beautiful Barbara Hershey), and hot planes. Not even a broken rib could hold him back when an opportunity to fly the X-1 was offered. His record-breaking flight could fill a movie by itself...and this is just the BEGINNING of the story!
Jumping ahead a few years, Yeager is joined by a new breed of test pilots, whose total love of flight challenges their relationships, and is the true measure of how they define themselves. Among them are 'Gordo' Cooper (Dennis Quaid), a hot dog jet jockey with an unhappy wife (Pamela Reed, giving an exceptional performance); and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward, in his breakthrough role), coarse and direct, and anxious for his shot at the fastest jets.
The entire world changes when the Russians launch Sputnik, in 1957. As the American space program struggles to 'catch up', the government realizes that American men will have to go into space, and President Eisenhower wants 'educated' test pilots to fill this role. Yeager is out (he never completed college), but Cooper and Grissom, and many others, compete for spots in the New Frontier.
These pilots, from all services, are weeded down to seven men, dubbed 'Astronauts', and the Mercury Space Program is born! Along with Cooper and Grissom, the story focuses on Navy pilot Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), laconic and prone to ethnic humor; and Marine John Glenn (perfectly cast Ed Harris), a 'boy scout' of unimpeachable morals, who loyally supports an impaired wife (sensitively portrayed by Mary Jo Deschanel). Working under the glare of the world press, the seven gradually come to respect one another, and embark on an epic adventure, full of triumph and tragedy!
Meanwhile, Chuck Yeager, snubbed by NASA, continues to test new generations of jets, pushing the 'envelope', until, in a climactic scene, he achieves the threshold of space, himself. The flight is a near disaster, resulting in a horrendous crash, but the image of the burned but undefeated pilot, walking proudly away from the wreckage, is an unforgettable image of courage, and truly defines 'The Right Stuff'!
This is a REMARKABLE film in every way, and is director Philip Kaufman's masterpiece. Lushly scored by Tom Conti (who won an Oscar for the Tchaikovsky-inspired music), the film soars, both on earth and in space!
If you believe the Age of Heroes is past, watch 'The Right Stuff', and you might change your mind! This is a film to treasure!