Philip Kaufman’s TheRight Stuff is an important movie to watch or re-watch at this moment in history. I say this not just because of the cultural reasons of the recent death of John Glenn (played wonderfully in this film by John Glenn) and by the release of Hidden Figures, another film set during the beginning of America’s role in the space race, also involving John Glenn. I say it is important now because The Right Stuff deals so much with the history of the relationship between the USA and Russia over the last 50 years. It begins at a time when any tension between the two countries was hidden by their earlier long-lasting alliance, shows how the space race became a point of contention between the two countries, a competition that was the surface issue of many bigger problems about to be confronted. It was made in the 1980s when the fear of nuclear warfare between the two was nearing its end.
The Right Stuff is a film about astronauts. It’s about the talents, the sacrifices, the heroic actions, and the often misaligned priorities of those astronauts. It’s about the strained relationships with their families and the team they built among themselves. But it’s also a reflection of America and its relationship with the USSR. Russian astronauts and scientists were important in America’s advancement in space technology. The relationship between American government officials and scientists with their Russian counterparts waver constantly from mutual respect and cooperation to defensiveness, deceit, and manipulation coming from both sides.
Made in 1983, the movie has the benefit of hindsight to honor the astronauts whose work was so important and at the same time find fault with both the USA and Russia for their inappropriate uses of the space race and the people involved with it for political gain. There is a remarkable scene where the members of the Mercury 7 have a press conference and handle themselves naturally, not seeing themselves or their work with nearly the same level of importance as the press and the governmental officials with them in the same room. While we see this, the “Hallelujah Chorus” is played on the soundtrack, playing only the moments where “king of kings and lord of lords” is sung. It is used in an extremely sarcastic way, not against the astronauts but against all the other people in the room who have expectations of America’s role in the space race of being their nation’s salvation from Russia and from other sources. The scene harshly criticizes the extreme nationalism found in America during the Cold War and the way that space race, but not the astronauts, fit into this.
This criticism of America in the past is appropriate now with the country’s present. How will it respond to Russian attacks? Has it learned from its passed mistakes, or will it again seek salvation through a few individuals that have no actual say in the country’s internal or foreign policies and through a perverse nationalistic and ethnocentric sense of superiority over other nations? Will it learn from its past mistakes, or will it again place inappropriate blame among its own minorities for problems that can really only be solved at the top? With the person chosen to lead the country, the negative answers to each of these questions seem a lot more likely, but the point of The Right Stuff is that in the midst of all these national security issues and internal moral failures, a few people related to those problems in the most indirect way possible do make a difference in a way that benefits their country simply because they do what they are gifted to do. They do it with much discipline, with great urgency, with willingness to sacrifice their personal needs and desires, and ultimately with success. When our country is faced with many of these same difficulties in the near future, which looks inevitable, it is up to the normal, everyday, hard-working Americans to do what they do with intelligence, sincerity, integrity, sacrifice and hope, because we too may have an impact on those larger national and global issues than we could possibly realize at this juncture.