Ed Harris in The Right Stuff.
Warner Bros./Everett Collection

Jean-Luc Godard once said all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl. How about astronauts and Sam Shepard? Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best seller about the early days of high-speed aircraft and the original Project Mercury astronauts is a story, largely, about men: their dreams, their sense of discipline, their fierce urge to compete among one another. But Kaufman doesn’t let men get away with their usual crap. He’s sensitive both to their hubris and their capacity for wonder, capturing the worst of them, the best of them, and the stuff in the middle that’s just right. Ed Harris, Scott Glen, Dennis Quaid, and Fred Ward star as John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, and Gus Grissom, the first men chosen and trained to go into space. Shepard plays Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Kaufman doesn’t forget the wives of these men: they’re played by Mary Jo Deschanel, Kathy Baker, Pamela Reed, Veronica Cartwright, and Barbara Hershey, and they’re all fully rounded characters, even when they get relatively little time on-screen. The Right Stuff did poorly at the box office upon its release, though critics loved it. Christopher Nolan did too: he has called it “an almost perfect movie.” He’s wrong about the “almost” part, but we’ll forgive him. It’s one of the great achievements of late-20th-century filmmaking, and the instant antidote to anyone who says the eighties were a terrible time for grown-up movies. You just had to know where to gaze: into space.

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