Cinema: Saga of a Magnificent Seven

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The Right Stuff finds heroism in the astronauts'story

Oh, it was a primitive and profound thing! Only pilots truly had it, but the entire world responded, and no one knew its name!

—Tom Wolfe

Not yet they didn't, not in 1962, when John Glenn became the first American "star voyager," the first "free man" to circle the globe in a spacecraft and match the accomplishment of the Soviets, who had done the trick first. It was 17 years before someone succeeded in naming the mysterious qualities that made Glenn and his six fellow Mercury astronauts such compelling figures.

The Right Stuff: that was the name we had been groping for. The phrase summarized the primitive and profound quality sensed beneath the space program's propaganda and the sometimes sleazy manipulations. It was, of course, Tom Wolfe who carefully defined a vague vernacular term and blazoned it as the title of his gloriously intelligent, funny and, above all, romantic bestseller "about the psychology of flying and the status competition among pilots." One suspects Wolfe's phrase is now poised for an even deeper and broader penetration into the common consciousness. For The Right Stuff, which many people thought could never be turned into a movie, is about to splash down in the nation's theaters. And despite a glitch here, a malfunction there, a triumphant landing it is likely to be.

The picture tells the story of the Mercury astronaut program, which trained seven men to be America's first explorers in space. It is big (more than three hours long), expensive ($25 million) and sprawling (covering 15 years of aviation history, from the breaking of the sound barrier in 1947 to the lift-off of the last Mercury capsule in 1963). It ranges from Pancho's Happy Bottom Riding Club (a raffish test-pilot bar at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert) to the Kennedy White House; from Lyndon Johnson asnarl in his limousine to the deep, deceptively serene blue of the upper atmosphere where "the demons" of the sky live. It is noisy with the roar of jet engines, the blare of military minds and the bawdiness of hospital humor as the astronaut candidates are subjected to exhaustive physical testing. It is also quiet with the tension of test flight and of the bedrooms where that tension is destroying marriages.

In short, the movie is anything but slick in structure or glib in tone. But that is far from a defect. In fact, the best thing about it is the serious but never sobersided spirit in which it was made. In the first memo he wrote about the project, Writer-Director Philip Kaufman, 46, mentioned some movies he admired, such as The Searchers and The Grand Illusion, and said he would strive for their rambling, episodic quality, in which " 'truth' is found along the way." In the end, that is exactly what he achieved.

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