Thursday, October 2, 2008

Flick of the Week: "Our Germans are better than their Germans"

This week's flick of the week takes us from The Rock with Ed Harris playing a disgruntled patriot soldier, to him playing the most patriotic astronaut ever in a film about the seven Mercury astronauts, The Right Stuff.

I first came to The Right Stuff through MAD Magazine. As a young teenager in the 80s I loved MAD Magazine. I loved reading "the lighter side of...", "Scenes We'd Like to See" and "A Mad look at..." (hated Spy vs Spy though). My favourite part of the magazine however was always the Mad movie parodies. Where else could a 12 year old come across such wit as that which would turn The Empire Strikes Back into "The Empire Strikes Out"? Or On Golden Pond into "On Olden Pond"? Priceless! And thanks to wikipedia, I know that The Right Stuff parody was called "The Right Stiff".

Now I'm being a tad facetious toward MAD, but back then when movies in Australia arrived about 6 months after they opened in America, and where only your rich cousins had a VCR (and a Beta at that); MAD's parodies were quite often my first encounter with the latest films. The fact that I hadn't actually seen the films they were parodying didn't seem to matter to me - I knew the jokes were funny because... well they're in MAD! They must be funny!

When I finally did get to see The Right Stuff it was as good as I thought it would be on the basis of MAD's retelling of the story.

The film itself tanked at the box office - making about $21.5m with a budget of around $27m. I couldn't really understand why, but at the age of 14 or whatever didn't really think much more about it.

A few years later when at university I saw it again, and thought it even better - Sam Shepherd as the great test pilot Chuck Yaeger is perhaps the best piece of casting ever - he doesn't really look like the real Yaeger, but he looks like you think Yaeger should look like. In fact the entire cast is great - Ed Harris as "Dudley do-right" John Glenn, the ever dependable Scott Glenn as Alan Shephard, Dennis Quaid being as brash as all get out in his role of brash Gordie Cooper.

And there's bit parts by Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum, as well as brilliant work by Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright and Pamela Reed as the ever suffering wives of the pilots.

Add to that the great cinematography and score, and you've got top drawer stuff.

I next came to The Right Stuff through the non-fiction novel it is based on. Tom Wolfe (he of The Bonfire of the Vanities fame) wrote one of the best works of non-fiction of the 20th Century. It is a cracking read. The first half is truly brilliant writing. His retelling of the horrors endured by the test pilots and their families is as good a writing as Wolfe has ever done.

It tails off a bit at the end because, as William Goldman (one of the first people hired to write the screenplay) noted, Wolfe set out to write about the entire space program and when he finished writing about the Mercury Seven, he basically just stops.

After reading the book (many times) I went back to the film; and it is all the better for the knowing the source. Yes some parts are not quite how they are presented in the book, and a lot of characters are missing; but it get across better than the book just how much of a turning point the space race was.

No longer was flying in fast jets the be all and end all; suddenly going into space was all that mattered, and as a result many of the greatest ever pilots (like Yaeger) were left behind.

It's great filmmaking - patriotic but not mawkish. It waves the flag, but also realises how much bull is involved in glorifying national heroes.

And it also features a scene in the "Australian outback" with Dennis Quaid singing Waltzing Matilda.

It's long, but epic. It's the space movie that Apollo 13 wishes it was. Robbed by Terms of Endearment at the Oscars that year. Do yourself a favour - go get it!

Best line:
Eric Sevareid: [broadcasting] There's another hold from NASA, another delay. Alan Shepard sits there, patiently waiting. What can be going through a man's mind at this moment? [cut to Shepard in his space capsule]
Alan Shepard: [over the intercom] Gordo?... Gordo, I have to urinate.

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