Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

No Bucks, No Buck Rogers!

The Right StuffThe Right Stuff

I ended up watching 'The Right Stuff' last night, for the zillionth time. An account of America's early test pilots and their absorption into the Mercury space program, it is also a kind of old-fashioned pioneer movie. Sure, there's corn and a lot of American gung-ho rubbish, but it's also a very, very well-made film.
Director Philip Kaufman could make some really excellent movies when he felt like it (eg. the 70s version of "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers"). He writes here as well. The little tricks he uses throughout - the seeding of pennies to pay dividends later (Gus Grissom and the exploding bolts, Chuck Yeagher and the chewing gum, Cooper's "Who's the best pilot you ever saw?") - is a joy to behold as a student of screenplays. How much of this was in Tom Wolfe's original book, I can't say, but at the very least he knows what to leave in his adaptation. The directorial elements are not to be sneezed at either; this is an epic picture told epically. He uses silent movie devices where possible, particularly in the magical first segment. Just look at the way he introduces the Death character as a handy motif to draw on later ( ask yourself why should the old man from Edwards Airbase be at the space launch? Magic!). If ever you need a straightforward lesson in how to load the dice against and so create a likeabable hero, watch how he sets up Yeagher for breaking the sound barrier*. It also helps to have granite-face Sam Shepard in the role, not to mention a who's who of talent backing him up (Dennis Quaid, Barbara Hershey, Ed Harris, Veronica Cartwright, Fred Ward, Jeff Goldblum, Scott Glenn, to name a few). Almost every major character gets their own emotional scene helping to make a large ensemble cast of characters more than just thumbnails.
Yes, it has problems, but overall this is a movie from which to learn some of Hollywood's best tricks of the trade. With a long and complex story, and a necessarily big budget, Kaufman has to win a big audience in whatever way he can. That means mixing intelligence with popcorn, history with fantasy. After all no bucks, no Buck Rogers!

* Much as I love this movie, it always irks me how it glosses over the fact that America stole their supersonic technology from the more cash-starved British. To the best of my knowledge, the British actually broke the sound barrier first, though with an unmanned craft.

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