Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Right Stuff (1983): American heroism and exhibitionism in the Cold War context

By the time New Journalism exponent Tom Wolfe wrote The Right Stuff in 1979, the space race between Cold War rivals, the Soviet Union and the United States was over and even forgotten. And when the Philip Kaufman-directed movie came in 1983, it was a plain celebration of what seemed a pure adventure despite the political overtones. But it is rather difficult to forget the politics of it, especially for a non-American viewer seeing the film in 2013. (I have borrowed the DVD from the American Library.) The story is told at a certain leisure pace. The Second World War was over. It was 1947. What a bunch of test pilots were trying to do was cross the sound barrier. One of the curious things they do is to carry a plane in a plane and then parachute out in midair to pick up that buoyant momentum to cross the sound barrier, the Mach frontier. And they do it. The principle involved is delightfully simple: You can reach higher and at a phenomenal speed if you take off high up there. That is the architecture of the multi-stage rocket that emerged over the years. The top American official states the terms of the race: the British empire was possible was because the English were dominating the seas. The Americans have emerged a great power after the two world wars because of air superiority. The next domain of power is outer space. The Russian take the lead though the Americans feel that they could have done it too only if the political masters had given them free rein. And there is the sarcastic remark: Their Germans are better than ours. A reference to the common myth that the Germans were the real scientific brains, and after the war, both the Americans and the Russians made scientific headway because of the German brains they employed. The film goes the nice Hollywood way. The guys who are to become astronauts are toughie test pilots with steely nerves and nimble minds, with hearts in the right places -- they love their wives, their children, go to church and believe in America -- are shown like good folks ready to be part of a good war. The American press celebrates them, the American government display them. There are tense moments, there are the angry exchanges along with the conviviality. It is hard not to note the fact that the American astronauts had a Tom Wolfe to chronicle their story, and Philip Kaufman to bring their tale to the big screen. And one could not but think of the fact that there were similar heroes on the Russian side but for some reason the Russians did not have their Tom Wolfe and their Hollywood and their Philip Kaufman. The first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, a hero for many of us in India when we were growing up in the 1960s, was shown through documentary footage in the film, and he was the man across the barbed-wire ideological fence. Director Kaufman gives a few poetic touches to the astronauts' tale. One of them rides a horse to the air field where they are trying to beat the sound barrier. And the horse is used in a few other scenes without saying anything. But the contrast is there: man and horse have a close bonding which the "capsule" would never give them. There is the slightly poignant scene when the test pilots training to be astronauts argue with the engineers that they would retain manual control and that they will not be passive chimpanzees, the first animal sent into orbit by the Americans. And we are told even at the moment ultimate ecstasy in orbit that one of the astronauts would die on one of the later flights. In the movie, the women are the wives who support their husbands. We know that there are just too many women astronauts, which seemed quite unthinkable in the conservative circles of military training of the 1960s, a far cry from the raucous 1960s of another America.

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