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"Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"
A 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe's best-selling book, about the attempt to break the sound barrier and the subsequent Space Race. Briefly considered to be a campaign promo for John Glenn's presidential aspirations in 1984, but it actually didn't help much. It received eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and won four.
This was a breakout role for many now-established actors: Scott Glenn (unless you count Urban Cowboy), Dennis Quaid (unless you count Breaking Away), Fred Ward (unless you count Escape from Alcatraz), and Ed Harris (unless you count Knightriders). Additionally, Sam Shepard has never worked too hard to advance his acting career, but if he can be said to have a breakout role, this is it: he was nominated for an Oscar.
Although the movie is centered around the men and their fast, expensive, and dangerous toys, the women in the movie receive a great deal of character development, from Pancho and Nurse Murch to all of the astronaut's wives.
Interesting trivia: the actor named Glenn played Shepard, and the actor named Shepard played Yeager. Glenn was played by ... the actor named Harris.
This film provides examples of:
- The Bartender: The real-life Pancho Barnes is worth a movie all by herself, and all she got was a made-for-TV piece of junk starring, of all people, Valerie Bertinelli.
- Battleaxe Nurse: Nurse Murch.
- Berserk Button: John Glenn is incredibly mild-mannered . . . unless you pick on his wife.
- Bigger Is Better: the Atlas rocket.
- Bug Buzz: The sound of locusts are played in the background of scenes that involve the Permanent Press Corps.
- California Doubling: averted. Location managers are not likely to find a place more desolate than Edwards AFB.
- The road to Edwards AFB?
- Tell me about it.
- Although the "Australia" in the film looked a lot like some of the more desolate places on the base...
- The road to Edwards AFB?
- Catch Phrase: "Who's the best pilot you ever saw?"; "Hey Ridley, got any Beeman's?"; "No bucks, no Buck Rogers"; "Fucking-A Bubba"; "My name Jose Jimenez"; "One hundred percent;" etc.
- Chekhov's Gun: The conversation the Mercury 7 have with the scientists about having a window, manual controls and explosive bolts. Later on all three become an important part of at least one flight.
- Chiaroscuro: used to good effect in the cabinet room.
- Combat by Champion
- Cool Plane: Oodles.
- Creator Killer: Despite being a critical success, the movie was a financial failure. This, along with Twice Upon a Time own failure to earn money at the box office, sent The Ladd Company into oblivion for about a decade. The company rebounds.
- Danger Deadpan: The original. The real Yeager makes a cameo as well (see Real Person Cameo below).
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Only in this movie could they do this to the dueling tunes of "From the Halls of Montezuma" and "Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder."
- Did I Just Say That Out Loud?: "Dear Lord, please don't let me fuck up."
- Do Not Call Me Paul:
Life Magazine publisher Henry Luce: Now, I want them all to meet my people who will write their true stories, Naturally these stories will appear in Life magazine under their own bylines: For example, "by Betty Grissom", or "by Virgil I. Grissom", or...
- Eagle Land: Unapologetically.
- Embarrassing Middle Name: Virgil Ivan "Gus" Grissom. Not only was his first name personally embarrassing, but his middle name would have been a propaganda embarrassment. This IS the Cold War Space Race, after all.
- Fatal Method Acting: The stuntman portraying Chuck Yeager's bailout of the crashing F-104. His helmet filled with smoke, and he didn't get his parachute deployed. Also a strange bit of Truth in Television, as Yeager actually collided with his seat after ejecting, and his helmet filled with liquid explosive materials, similarly filling his helmet with smoke and burning his face to a cinder. The aftermath is portrayed in the Out of the Inferno shot listed below.
- Fauxlosophic Narration: The beginning narration, which poetically describes the sound barrier as a "demon that lives in the air."
- Fee Fi Faux Pas: "I bet you're gonna hang our picture on your wall."
- The Film of the Book
- Fire-Forged Friends: Almost simultaneously, the astronauts when Glenn's mission is threatened, and the wives when Vice-President Johnson wants to interview Annie Glenn.
- Funetik Aksent: "A pot?" "A spaceman?" "A jimp?"
- Gosh Dang It to Heck: Ed Harris plays this to the hilt as John Glenn. Even when he wants to curse, he can't bring himself to do it.
John Glenn: Let's ffff....
- The Grim Reaper: Listed in the credits as "Minister."
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Only applies to Cincinnati Bengals fans. Gonzalez is played by Anthony Munoz, who was an All-Pro offensive lineman at the time.
- Homage Shot
- Improbable Piloting Skills: Averted.
- Insistent Terminology: That... is a spacecraft. We do not refer to it as a "capsule." It's a spacecraft. Similarly, the astronauts are not "occupants" of the spacecraft, but pilots.
- Lethally Expensive: While the two White House staffers are showing the film of the Soviet space program.
White House Staffer #1: This footage was assembled from souces operating under cover at great risk.
- Lie Back and Think of England: When John Glenn has to masturbate for a sperm sample, he hums the Marine Corps Anthem — for, uh — inspiration.
- Then Cooper starts humming the Air Force anthem. Interservice Rivalry at its finest.
- Lyndon Johnson: Donald Moffat gives what may be the most over-the-top screen portrayal of LBJ. "You know what the Russians want?"
- MacGyvering: The sawed-off broom handle. According to Yeager's autobiography, 100% true.
- Magical Native American: Well, Native Australian. You may well ask what they're doing in the movie.
- Meaningful Funeral: At the beginning, to underscore the dangerous nature of the test pilots' work.
- Mission Control: Literally.
- Nakama: Just watch the astronauts, and their wives, rally around each other against NASA administrator and a vice president who's trying to score political points.
- NASA: Also literally.
- The Nameless: The above-mentioned "Minister"; the "Recruiters" (Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer, kind of a two-person Crowning Moment of Funny); "Liaison Man" (David Clennon from Thirtysomething); the mysterious Head of the Space Program (and his even more mysterious Soviet counterpart); the "Permanent Press Corps"; etc. etc.
- Old Media Are Evil: The press corps are not portrayed in a very flattering light.
- Other Stock Phrases: The book actually popularized the term "screw the pooch" in pop culture.
- Out of the Inferno: Yeager, after crashing the F-104.
"Is that a man?"
- Potty Emergency: "Gordo, I have to urinate."
- Followed by a montage of fire hoses, coffee pouring, water coolers, etc., after which Shepard declares, through painfully clenched teeth, "Request permission to relieve bladder."
- Power Walk: The Trope Codifier.
- Pragmatic Adaptation: A less-than-500-page book turns into a 3+ hour movie, but it's still actually an Adaptation Distillation. Two of the six Mercury flights (Carpenter's and Schirra's) aren't shown at all, and we only see the end of Grissom's and the beginning of Cooper's. Plus, the book goes into great detail about the dangers of Navy flight ops, and that only gets 30 seconds in the film. Etc. etc...
- Real Person Cameo: "You fellas want some whiskey?"
- Reality Subtext:
- Towards the end of the movie, Alan Shepard tells his wife Louise, in a "one of these days..." manner, "I'm going to the moon...". Shepard would be the only one of the Mercury Seven who would go to the moon, on Apollo 14 .
- During the astronaut tryouts in the movie, Gordon Cooper gloats about breaking the record for holding one's breath, only to realize that John Glenn and Scott Carpenter are still going after he's done. In real life, Cooper did hold his breath the longest, since he was the only non-smoker in the Mercury Seven.
- At the movie's end, before Cooper lifts off on his mission, he's shown dozing off. Cooper was the first astronaut to sleep in outer space.
- Red Scare: "Pretty soon they'll be dropping bombs on us like rocks from a highway overpass!"
- Reentry Scare: Justified, in that this actually happened on John Glenn's flight.
- Semper Fi: John Glenn, "Mr. Clean the Marine."
- Shown Their Work: Wolfe was meticulous about getting the details right in his book, so the movie makers had an easy job of it. There's bits of Artistic License here and there, but that's all.
- Shrouded in Myth: The sound barrier, literally shrouded in clouds, which turns out to be not so big a deal.
- Speech Impediment: Annie Glenn's, which turns out to be central to the plot. She very successfully completed therapy for it in 1973.
- Stanley Steamer Spaceship: Glenn's, during orbit.
- Survival Mantra: John Glenn is shown humming "Battle Hymn of the Republic" during his (potentially fatal) re-entry, something the real Glenn did not do.
- You Fail History Forever: "The Romans ruled the world because they could build roads" is arguable, leaning towards false. But "the British ruled the world because they had ships" and "we won the war because we had planes" is downright absurd. (However, that line was lifted nearly verbatim from LBJ's own words.)
- He was stated to be on the first Gemini mission, but got grounded due to an inner ear condition. After the docs cleared him, Shepard was initially assigned to Apollo13, NASA execs moved him to Apollo 14 to give his crew more time to train