When he tackled Tom Wolfe's book about the Mercury astronauts, writer-director Philip Kaufman wouldn't film the simple rah-rah national anthem that the original screenwriter, William Goldman, had envisioned; he chose to salute test pilots like Chuck Yeager, whom Wolfe had exalted as the unsung heroes of American aviation. He forsook computer-dominated special effects and gave the flying scenes a rough, anti- "Star Wars" edge. He lampooned the media circus that surrounded the Mercury astronauts. And he tested the astronauts' intestinal fortitude both in lowly and heavenly ways -- with enemas as well as high-risk rocket launches. (Kaufman's plucky cast includes Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn and Fred Ward as the most fleshed-out of the astronauts; Pamela Reed, Mary Jo Deschanel and Veronica Cartwright as the most prominent of the astronauts' wives; Sam Shepard (pictured) as Yeager; and Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum as recruiters who serve as a sort of geek chorus.) By acknowledging the political game-playing and careerism behind the facade of the Mercury space program, and satirizing the media whitewash of the astronauts, Kaufman permits us to exult in their genuine courage -- and not feel guilty about it in the morning. The result is that rarity in movies: an individualistic epic.
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