Writer/director Philip Kaufman was hitting the sweet-spot of his maddeningly unproductive career when he took Tom Wolfe’s book on the ‘Mercury’ astronauts, encircled it with longing glances at Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier*, and galvanized it all into a Pop epic. Long, but fabulous, it’s beautifully paced (or was on the big screen, home viewing requires a touch more concentration), its commercial failure remains a mystery. (Was it the quick shifts in tone, from inspirational to snarky, ironic/satiric before going full heroic?) The cast is a spot-on miracle, from Sam Shepard’s Gary Cooper of a Chuck Yeager (ridiculously sexy against Barbara Hershey), to the Mercury 7 (Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Scott Glenn & Ed Harris standouts . . . and so young!). Even the wives, loyal & frustrated, are deftly particularized for a change; plus a breakthrough perf from a strikingly funny Jeff Goldblum. With production design & Caleb Deschanel’s lensing nailing period verisimilitude, it’s wildly nostalgic for any LIFE Magazine subscriber. The one chink in the armor is Bill Conti’s less than stellar score. Nothing wrong using real Holst & Debussy, but his own music is more like ‘The Derivative Stuff,’ including a main theme Glazanov might have claimed.* But not enough to hurt things, the film’s too playful & exciting to be held down.
LINK/ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Producers Robert Chartoff & Irwin Winkler had used Conti on ROCKY/’76. (This film got him a payback Oscar®.) He’s an unimaginably square choice for Kaufman, lifting Holst & Debussy when he’s not tweaking Glazanov for an ‘original’ main theme. Here's Glazanov: The Seasons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTycARujjd0
Here's Conti: RIGHT STUFF Main Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ges3kx7hoUQ
DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Everything involving Yeager & the cadre of speed demon test pilots plays like a newfangled Howard Hawks flyboy pic. Try ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS/’39.