February 24, 2011 at 4:53 EST marked the last of the Discovery space shuttle launches and the first of the last three shuttle launches. It was the STS-133. Watching the launch live on NASA's site immediately brought to mind one of my favorite films: The Right Stuff.
The 80's, according to Mike Nelson of MST3K, consisted of two things: doing alot of coke and voting for Ronald Regan. But before people got busy powdering their noses, Jimmy Carter was in office. At that point in American history, the confidence of the American people was low. The U.S. had just dealt with recession, inflation, unemployment (which should sound familiar living in this era), & the Iran hostage crisis. In the reaction to these depressing events, The Right Stuff sent out an uplifting message of jubilation. It showed that Americans experienced similar dissatisfactions and anxieties in the late 50's & early 60's.
Americans started to look at their country as second rate. The Russians were putting monkeys into space while we had rockets exploding on launch pads. Slowly but surely, America started to pull out of its decline and into a nation of technical superiority. Thus, the Mercury program was created. It's goal: to put a man in orbit around earth.
Few movies do as good a job on referring to the topic of heroism and courage. Mercury 7's astronauts embody just that. They set out to do a mission many of us wouldn't even think of attempting. Mercury 7 acted as a crucial turning point in American history. Paving the way for the small steps for man and giant leaps for mankind.
The first section of the film is devoted to the story of Chuck Yeagar. One of the greatest of all test pilots. Yeager pushed the envelope further than any test pilot had up to that time. With this added element, the film becomes more than just a docudrama about the Mercury 7 but about human progress in manned flight. In the wake of Yeager's triumph, the age of the lone explorer seemingly had ended and the age of the team of explorers had begun. A transitional point that smoothed into the space program and has led to the teams of astronauts being sent into space presently. Ebert puts its better than I ever could in his review: "Seen now in the shadow of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, "The Right Stuff" is a grim reminder of the cost of sending humans into space. It is also the story of two kinds of courage, both rare, and of the way the "race for space" was transformed from a secret military program into a public relations triumph."
The film has the rare ability to be so much: an adventure, social/political commentary, comedy, docudrama & above all else a historical epic. It has a little something for everybody. Philip Kaufman was able to perfect that mixture by showing the truth through a satirical lens so subtle that it works without the device of manipulation. While several other Hollywood attempts at this cannot even get off the launch pad, this one takes to the skies in full force. For those brave souls that chose to enter the program , it took courage & determination. Those 7 astronauts had it. So did Yeager.
A heavenly light indeed.