It's mildly surprising to see ''The Right Stuff'' shape up as a probable hit, since astronauts haven't exactly been on everyone's mind lately. While certainly respected, today's space-shuttle pilots haven't gotten anything like the hero worship poured on the first men in space, who are the subjects of Philip Kaufman's ambitious new movie.
This is partly because the initial American space program was charged with a cold-war ''race with the Russians'' urgency that has either faded or shifted its focus to nuclear weaponry. Also, another kind of technology has diverted the public fancy: computers, which seem more accessible and friendly than towering rocketships and their intimidating hardware.
Two decades have passed since the heyday of astronautics, though, and that's enough time for nostalgia to creep in. While the first spacemen are no legendary figures, their exploits are removed in time just enough to seem historic as well as heroic. Enter filmmaker Kaufman to give them a new life on the wide screen.
Ironically, the original ''Right Stuff'' book spends great energy demystifying the astronauts and skewering the competitive mentality that spawned and shaped the Mercury project. Tom Wolfe, the author, takes ferocious pleasure in spotlighting the human frailties and bureaucratic baloney that lurk below the surface of heralded achievements and simplistic newspaper headlines. Sometimes he sinks into mere caricature, but he comes up with real insights, too - as in his careful account of astronaut training, which ''conditioned'' the men so well that their feats seemed anticlimactic or even ''unrealistic'' to them when actually taking place.
In transferring ''The Right Stuff'' to the screen, writer-director Kaufman tries to have the story two ways. He plunders the book for snappy lines and cockeyed situations, parading his heroes through indiscretions and indignities that (like some of the language) strain the boundaries of PG territory. Yet his view of them remains heroic, and he aims the action toward movie-style climaxes pitched more to the emotions (Yea for Shepard! Go get 'em, Glenn!) than to the sharp-eyed skepticism Wolfe encourages.
The result is a big, lively, well-acted picture that lacks the intelligence of its source and never quite musters the same energy and humor, either. True, the subject matter is expansive, and much had to be omitted when squeezing it into around three hours of screen time. But surely I'm not the only one who would prefer more about the amazing rivalry between test pilots and astronauts, and less childish smirking at the bathroom side of medical exams. Or a probe of President Kennedy's motives for pushing his space program (Was it, as Wolfe suggests, partly to divert attention from the Bay of Pigs fiasco?) and fewer shots of good-old-boy heroes hanging around the local saloon.
Still, the movie soars during its later scenes, when John Glenn's great orbital flight is juxtaposed with the last hurrah of Chuck Yeager, an unreconstructed airplane lover who represents the old ways at their best. Even here, Kaufman intercuts the Glenn mission with some mystical nonsense about Australian aborigines, which clutters the story. But there's no denying the splendor of space and the thrill of accomplishment as felt by Glenn and Yeager, and vicariously by us, as well.