John Glenn, one of America’s premiere – both in timing and stature – astronauts passed away last week at the well-worn age of 95. Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in space, doing so in 1962 before going on to a career as a senator for 25 years, during which time he also returned to space as a member of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1998.
To commemorate Glenn’s life, AMC Theaters and Warner Bros. are bringing back The Right Stuff, the 1983 film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book chronicling the test pilots and others who made up the first class of America’s space program. In the movie Ed Harris plays Glenn, an esteemed U.S. Marine at the time. Joining him are Alan Shepherd (Scott Glenn) and others, including a handful of those who have been working to prove their mettle as test pilots. While Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepherd) is the ruler of that roost, pilots like Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) are the new up-and-comers who eagerly sign on to the nascent space program while Yeager passes. The movie not only focuses on their journey but the program as a whole, from the space race against Russia and their Sputnik satellite through that country’s first manned mission right through the 1963 Mercury-Atlas 9 mission.
The theatrical poster focus on selling the ensemble cast and providing a solid visual for the audience to latch on to. So it simply shows the “Mercury Seven” astronauts all decked out in their suits and standing squarely toward the camera. Below the title is the copy “How the future began,” which made a lot of sense for the early years of the Reagan administration when the whole country was talking about space shuttles, space stations and other innovations that were going to continue man’s quest off the planet and into the void. The poster is filled with white space, allowing the audience to really focus on what’s being shown here.
The trailer does what it can to tell a more or less linear story, starting off by introducing Yeager as a risk-taking test pilot and quickly showing the recruitment of some of the team. There are plenty of shots of the kind of reception the pilots receive from the public, who herald them as heroes in the quest to go into space, but we also see the personal drama of the story. That involves the tension coming from the wives and girlfriends, the way each of the pilots jockey for position in the spotlight and the frustrations they face, including Grissom’s infamous issues and Glenn facing off against his superiors. There’s some humor as well as we see Shepherd, while strapped in, inform ground control he has to use the bathroom, something they don’t seem to have a protocol for. The trailer ends with voiceover talking about how the public all want to see “Buck Rogers.”
Considering, in retrospect, how wide-ranging the story of the movie (not to mention the book) is, this is a remarkably coherent trailer. It has a big movie to sell – it runs a bit over three hours – so in no way shape or form could it sell everything. But it’s still a good representation of what audiences can expect, from the cool cynicism of Shepherd’s Yeager to the flag-waving patriotism of Harris’ Glenn and more. It’s more concerned with selling the attitudes of the characters than the specific story, though there are plenty of points there as well. It’s important to remember, though, that as a movie geared toward an adult audience in 1983 it was likely safe to assume that most of the people who would have seen the trailer were familiar with some of the bigger events on display. They had most likely lived through the Mercury and Apollo space programs, even if they were kids at the time, and so didn’t need to be told who Gus Grissom was. So it’s even more impressive how much of the story the trailer manages to cram in by virtue of not having to do all those introductions.
The two parts of the campaign combined to sell a fun but dramatic movie about an important part of U.S. history to the public. If you have the means to see this epic story on the big screen, do so.