The right stuff is something that those who have it recognize in one another but do not and perhaps cannot speak of. More than expertise and more than daring, the right stuff is courage. The question raised by Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff, and its film adaptation, has to do with the extent to which courage has become discouraged at our bend in the road of American history.
The film is aptly advertised as presenting us with a picture of “How the Future Began.” This image suggests that a transformation of things, or of our understanding of things, has occurred especially in the years since the Second World War, whereby the present and future are made one and the past is jettisoned for good. Courage is that element of the past which we are asked to consider as a means of judging the consequences of, and the wisdom of accepting, this supposed or proposed transformation.
Chuck Yeager, the flyboy who rides horses around Edwards Air Force Base, evinces courage in the traditional sense: He displays an even attitude toward fearful or painful things, and, while it is difficult to say why Yeager chooses to display this attitude, one can say that he does not do so for the wrong or less-than-noble reasons. He exhibits courage neither out of ignorance regarding danger nor from animal spiritedness; neither due to unqualified hopes nor from a sense of professionalism. He is not out for money at all or for fame exactly. He does not act for the sake of self-preservation or even, ultimately, for reasons of patriotism. (It might be recalled that in Aristotle’s treatment of courage, although courage is especially to be demonstrated on the front line of battle, citizen courage is presented as imperfect. While Yeager was a combat ace in World War II and went on to fly over 100 missions in Vietnam, it is fair to say that his courage is not compelled by a love of country.) The cause or the end of Yeager’s courage might be said to be courage itself or the noble. Perhaps due to this apparent motiveless-ness, Chuck Yeager has little tolerance for those who throw obstacles in the way of courage or in his way. They, in turn, have no time or place for him.
The movie is best and most satisfying in its portrayal of these enemies to noble courage. The media-or the Beast, as they are called in Wolfe’s book-are a swarming herd with which we are familiar from the Six O’clock News. They fail to distinguish private things from public ones, be they lawns, trees, pleasures, or pains. They demand to hear the unspeakable, to supply motives where motives can only serve to vulgarize. And the worst thing is that in the future, which the film depicts as beginning, the media are preeminent. As they are truly the opinion-maker in the new America, they must be placated whether one is after money for rockets or honor for heroism. Thus they are in a real position to bring the high low and to drive the lower to the depths. We have seen repeatedly since the Mercury program, most recently in the wake of the Grenada operation, that the Beast’s game remains basically unchanged.
The politician of the future begun, personified by the film in the person of Lyndon Johnson, would be unable to recognize noble courage if it hit him in his leering face. Driven by pride and ambition, he is capable, at best, of the most vulgar sort of patriotism. In welcoming the astronauts and their wives to Houston by presenting them with an aging stripper’s waning tease, he is the perfect complement to the press whose subject he will finally become. Together, they will turn the Vietnam War into a most ignoble and discouraging experience for the nation.
The doctors, or “life scientists,” who are in charge of inspecting the would-be star voyagers and of selecting the lucky seven, are ominously reminiscent of the men from the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. These humorless neuters run our heroes through tests which are unnecessary to begin with and, in the end, are inhumanly debasing. Men are not different to them in kind from the first Buck Rogers of them all, the monkey Ham, for adaptability to unnatural treatment is the lodestar of their methods, not experience or virtue.
But behind the doctors, behind the future which only seems to be ushered in by vulgar politicians and obscene newsmen, stand those to whom monkeys are, in fact, preferable to human beings. These, of course, are the German masterminds of the space program. The Germans represent the relentless but alien spirit of modern science, which corrupts the American character. It is Eisenhower who insists that test pilots rather than chimps be incorporated into their project and, by so doing, throws a wrench into the German machine. His American flyboys are able to buck the system in small but significant ways. They insist, for instance, upon a window being installed on the spacecraft. As windows and the pilots themselves are superfluous to these foreign engineers of the future, so, the film suggests, is America herself. They ultimately do not see the race for the moon as a race between the United States and the U.S.S.R., but as a contest between Germans here and Germans there. We now living bear sad witness to the legacy of German influence upon our polity in many ways. (Consider the moral-political premises of Kissinger’s detente policy.) The war our fathers won, it seems, was but a battle in a larger war which rages on.
The seven Mercury astronauts may be said to have fought the good fight against those who would make of them “spam in a can,” as the pilots back at Edwards like to put it. But the film does not exactly leave us with uplifted spirits. The stuff of these seven, clearly, is once removed from Yeager’s. And as the credits roll, new astronauts are on their way, younger ones with more recent (and more German) college educations. (Yeager was dismissed from consideration for the space program on the grounds that he had no college schooling.) The Germans have set things in motion, the White House is in Johnson’s hands, and the Beast is running amok.
To the extent that John Glenn’s candidacy for President has dominated discussion of The Right Stuff, it is a nuisance. But in a sense, that candidacy provides an interesting backdrop for that discussion, which I suggest ought to center around the question of whether the future should be the object of our present faith; that is, whether we believe in progress and hence the intrinsic desirability of change.
Indeed, Glenn’s chosen campaign slogan is “Believe in the Future Again,” and I suspect from this fact alone that he has been telling the truth about not having seen The Right Stuff. Glenn’s example is one that shows the fallowness of this stuff when compared to statesmanship, which must supply ends to the courageous men who are, in turn, forgetful of those ends. It is finally intellect and not eagerness for change that distinguishes men from monkeys (as Chuck Yeager points out when defending Gus Grissom against charges of cowardice).
This distinction is not part of our orthodoxy, as it once was, largely due to the German derailment of our political traditions. An indication of that derailment is our increased tendency to place faith in progress at the expense of attention to past actions and teachings. It is not difficult to see that by this tendency courage, as traditionally understood, is put in an impossible position. One way in which that courage is distinguished from foolishness is that the courageous man will risk his chance for a long life that he knows is valuable, whereas the fool knows not what he might lose. But the value of this life in itself cannot be deduced from the progressive, future-oriented outlook. Thus, heroism is redefined by that outlook: While the new type of hero does not risk foolishness, neither can he possess courage in the way that Chuck Yeager was courageous.
The outmoded test pilots of The Right Stuff speak of “pushing back the outside of the envelope,” which means stretching the limits of altitude and speed that they can reach in their planes. But their expression implies that for them there is an envelope, or a “demon in the sky,” and that limits do exist. It suggests the existence of nature or of God. The story of “How the Future Began” is the story of the right stuff under siege because it is the story of an endangered understanding of nature or of God.
The film can be interpreted as a warning: If America does not come home (and I don’t mean militarily), if she fails to return from her German holiday, then she stands in great danger, as the righteous stuff-brotherhood are wont to say, of “screwing the pooch.” But the consequences should America fail at her mission would be cataclysmic to a degree never dreamed of by any respectable pilot at Edwards.
FILMS IN BRIEF
The Day After
Unlike other disaster films, The Day After has a definite political intention (whatever disingenuous claims ABC television officials or those connected with the film might make): to instill in its viewers a fear of nuclear weapons that would forestall improvements of those weapons and lead to their unilateral eradication. Begun shortly after the election of President Reagan, 35 years after the first use of the atom bomb, the film blames nuclear weapons themselves, and not the Soviet Union, as the leading threat to civilization.
Hence, The Day After overlooks the main point: How do we continue to deter the Soviet Union from waging nuclear war (or any type of war for that matter) while securing our freedoms and preserving our way of life? If this film is successful in making Americans think that nuclear weapons, and not the Soviet Union, are the enemy, it may help bring about the very catastrophe it portrays.
Of course such a movie should lead citizens to wonder why the United States lacks an anti-ballistics missile defense system or serious civil defense preparations. Unfortunately, such considerations are virtually overlooked by commentary on the film, which focuses on the anti-nuclear weapons theme.
(Ironically, the film footage covering the military activities came from an NBC “docu-drama,” First Strike, which had been completed some time before the 1980 election, then spiked, and subsequently given a limited showing. Quite contrary to the implicit teaching of The Day After, this film contended that America’s military preparedness was so weak that the Soviets might launch a first strike against us.)
It is not unilluminating to note some Russian citizens’ reactions to The Day After. According to the Los Angeles Times (November 24):
A few Russians who have seen videotapes of the program shown by Western friends said it is unthinkable that such a program would be shown on Soviet television, simply because it would undermine already shaky public faith in Soviet civil defense programs.
One Russian who saw it watched in silence, transfixed less by the scenes of slow death and radioactive rubble than by the program’s earlier views of ordinary life in a Midwestern town, with its sleek cars, large homes, neat lawns, and a glittering American supermarket.
That a film with such weak acting, direction, and script can command so much attention is a tribute to the cunning of its producers. One should also not overlook the well-acted anti-nuclear film Testament, with Jane Alexander portraying a Mother Courage’s hapless attempt at protecting her family against the nuclear plague. Those who wish to bring about an elevated public dialogue concerning nuclear weapons have formidable enemies indeed.
The somewhat tedious Under Fire could not have been released at a better time, following the Grenada invasion and the journalists’ flap over being left out. In this well-acted film, Nick Nolte, Joanna Cassidy, and Gene Hackman portray war correspondents in Somoza’s Nicaragua. Nolte’s professionalism (“I don’t take sides, I take pictures”) dissolves when he sees the corruption and brutality of the Samozistas and the nobility and idealism of the Sandinistas. One attractive Nicaraguan informs him that the true conflict is not between the West and the East but between North and South. Like sprites, reporters Nolte and Cassidy walk through a battle zone, frightened of Somozistas but secure in the presence of Sandinistas.
The turning point occurs when Nolte sees an American mercenary gun down a personable revolutionary who sports a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap, asks him to say hello to Dennis Martinez, and pitches hand grenades for the Sandinistas. So overcome with grief that he fails to take a picture of the corpse, Nolte proclaims he has seen “one too many bodies” in Nicaragua and begins to take sides. He goes on to assist the Sandinistas by taking a photograph of their slain leader (the fictitious Raphael) which makes him appear to be alive. Nolte’s handiwork convinces the world that Raphael-and hence the spirit of the “revolution of the poets”-lives on.
At the end we see the triumphant Sandinistas enter Managua. Star reporter Cassidy clutches a Sandinista flag; she does not wave it, but she has openly dropped all pretense of the neutrality she had prided herself on. Those who think the United States acted hastily in excluding reporters from Grenada should see this film and draw lessons from it that its producers and financiers did not intend to teach.
The Big Chill
The Big Chill recalls the Sixties by bringing together friends of a classmate who has unaccountably committed suicide. (It turns out he was probably the most sensible one in the whole bunch.) But the group does not permit death to get in the way of enjoying themselves. Nihilism can be great fun (which is one way of accounting for the difficulty in escaping it), as this entertaining film points out. One blurb for The Big Chill reads, “In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra put it this way, in a description of the last man (a being so despicable he is no longer able to despise himself): The last men “have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.” The fine acting and dialogue in this film portray the last men well, suggesting that such nihilism also lay at the core of the activist movements in the Sixties.