Cast: Charles Frank, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Lance Henriksen, Scott Paulin, Dennis Quaid, Sam Shepard, Fred Ward, Kim Stanley, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed
Oscar Wins: Best Sound (Mark Berger, Thomas Scott, Randy Thom, David MacMillan), Best Film Editing (Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart, Tom Rolf), Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing (Jay Boekelheide), Best Music, Original Score (Bill Conti)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sam Shepard), Best Cinematography (Caleb Deschanel), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Geoffrey Kirkland, Richard Lawrence, W. Stewart Campbell, Peter R. Romero, Jim Poynter, George R. Nelson)
SUMMARY: In the years after World War II, America’s best pilots move to Muroc Army Air Field in California, where they become test pilots for new high-powered aircraft, attempting to break the sound barrier. Unfortunately, by 1947 this has not been achieved, and several pilots have been killed trying. At least one pilot demands a sizable sum to even attempt to break the sound barrier. However, war hero Captain Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) is offered the chance to fly the new Bell X-1, which is rocket powered. Only days before his scheduled flight, Yeager runs into a tree while horseback riding and cracks several ribs. Knowing that this will keep him from flying, he conceals the injury from his superiors and flies anyway. During that flight, Yeager breaks the sound barrier. By 1953, Muroc has become Edwards Air Force Base, but has not lost its reputation for housing the best pilots in the country. Yeager has set several more speed records, earning a reputation as the best pilot in the country. These two factors have drawn in a new crop of pilots, including Air Force captains Gordon “Gordo” Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Virgil “Gus” Grissom (Fred Ward) and Donald “Deke” Slayton (Scott Paulin). All of these men want to become the new best pilot in the world, regardless of the danger. In 1957, the Soviet Union launches the Sputnik satellite, and the United States suddenly realizes that it has fallen dramatically behind in the Space Race. Politicians, including Senator Lyndon Johnson, want to be the first to put a man into space, and begin looking for the best men for the job. After a rigorous testing program, seven pilots are chosen (the Mercury Seven): John Glenn (Ed Harris), from the Marine Corps; Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Walter Schirra (Lance Henriksen) and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) from the Navy, and Cooper, Grissom and Slayton from the Air Force. Yeager is considered, but ultimately rejected because he does not have a college degree. The seven men become instant heroes, and each vies for the honor of being the first man in space.
Unfortunately, NASA does not yet have a rocket capable of entering space, let alone safely carry a human. In addition, the scientists on the project believe that a human is unnecessary for the project — that a chimp could carry out data collection just as well, and at less cost and danger. The pilots band together for their own protection, and insist on several changes to the spacecraft they will be riding in — a window, an escape hatch with exploding bolts, and controls for the pilot. The scientists are still unsure about the necessity of humans, but after the Soviets launch Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961, it becomes a moot point. The Mercury project is kicked into high gear, and less than a month after Gagarin’s flight, Shepard becomes the first American into space. Grissom goes next, but when the spacecraft hits the water, the hatch’s bolts blow, releasing Grissom and filling the capsule with water. Grissom swears that the bolts blew on their own, but many believe that he panicked and blew the hatch himself. Glenn is the next astronaut to go into space, in early 1962, and becomes the first American to orbit the Earth. However, a problem arises with his heat shield, which cuts the trip short. The engineers are able to find a solution, and Glenn survives and returns to a hero’s welcome. Following this flight, NASA headquarters are moved to Houston, Texas. The Mercury astronauts continue to be sent into space one by one, each one making longer orbits around the Earth. Back at Edwards, the test pilots mock the perceived lack of skill involved in being an astronaut, but Yeager respects their bravery in volunteering for a televised suicide mission. He himself continues to try to break speed records, and almost sets an altitude record (nearly going into space) in the Lockheed NF-104A. Unfortunately, he goes so high that his engine fails, and Yeager is forced to eject at an extreme height. He is seriously injured and burned, but walks away from the crash. Cooper is the last of the Mercury 7 to go into space, on May 15, 1963, and had the most successful flight of the program.
MY TAKE: This movie is really slow and without much narrative for the first half hour or so, but it gets better after that. You realize later that the test pilots are kind of the first stage of NASA, as they’re flying rocket-propelled aircraft, but at the time it just seems like a series of flights without any story. Things pick up when the U.S. starts looking for astronauts. The men are put through a variety of tests, some of them pretty interesting. However, after all of that, it appears as though the scientists don’t actually plan to use them. The astronauts try to force the issue, but it was probably a good thing for them that the Russians put a man into space first — the U.S. felt compelled to answer in kind, therefore necessitating the human occupants. Though Glenn has some problems, all of the flights are ultimately successful. There is some controversy regarding Gus Grissom, who was killed in 1967 when his spacecraft exploded, and the exploding hatch. In the movie, it is suggested that Grissom panicked and blew the hatch, but Grissom swore up and down that he did not do this. In fact, most people, including those at NASA, believe that it was mechanical failure. Grissom lacked the large bruise on his palm that resulted from blowing the hatch, but a lot of people at the time believed that it was his fault. That’s what was focused on in the book on which this movie is based, and that’s what was shown in the film — that people, even his wife — didn’t believe Grissom. Grissom was also the only one of the Mercury 7 to die on the job; the other six survived into retirement. John Glenn (who is still alive, at 94 — the only remaining Mercury astronaut) became the oldest man in space, and the only one to fly in the Mercury and Space Shuttle programs, in 1998, at age 77. From a narrative standpoint, it’s not a terrific movie, because there’s so much space stuff included that it’s hard to spend time on the characters. However, it is fairly entertaining, especially after the first half hour.